Professor Doudna, a molecular biologist at Berkeley talked about her hopes and fears regarding the science she pioneered to the Times. In my nightmare she said ‘ I opened the door and the man turned out to be Adolf Hitler, but with the face of a pig ‘I want to understand the uses and implications of this amazing technology you have developed.’ he said.’
Gene editing has become cheap and easy by CRISPR cas9 – an exciting biological system for altering DNA. Prof Dupre of the Nuffield Council describes CRISPR cas9 as “satnav with scissors”, because it uses proteins to cut DNA at a precise, targeted location. Genome editing is the deliberate alteration of a selected DNA sequence in a living cell, A strand of DNA is cut at a specific point and then natural cellular repair mechanisms repair the broken strands.
There are 4,000 known inherited single gene conditions, such as cystic fibrosis. affecting about 1% of births worldwide. Genome editing leads to the possibility of such conditions being treated.In 2015 it was reported that a Chinese team of researchers had corrected disease-causing genetic mutations in non-viable embryos, so they were not allowed to develop. The UK’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) also granted a licence in February 2016 to allow genome editing of embryos in the UK. British researchers led by Kathy Niakan at the Francis Crick Institute have begun removing individual genes from surplus IVF embryos that could not survive longer than the 14 limit allowed for experimentation to see what they do. Professor Doudna names Dr Niakan as one Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world.
This summer two year old Layla was declared free of leukaemia. She was saved after researchers took ‘scissors’ to a donor’s immune cells, in June 2015 and added new genes that would help her fight the cancer that was seemingly unstoppable even in the face of maximum chemotherapy. Now Prof Doudna feels it is just a matter of time before IVF clinics start using it on a number of inherited conditions. There are 4,000 known inherited single gene conditions, such as cystic fibrosis. affecting about 1% of births worldwide. Genome editing leads to the possibility of such conditions being treated.
The possibilities are exciting but she describes it as opening up a ‘Pandora’s box’ of ethical dilemmas.
Humans -Preventing and correcting inherited diseases but this could lead to the slippery slope of designer babies.
-Designing stem cells to be used in medicine
-Fighting illnesses such as cancer in Layla
-Animals – Livestock selected to use less food and water and grow faster.
-Bringing back extinct species.
Plants – Designing resistant crops suitable for particular environments that can go quickly and cheaply
Negatives – Designer babies, designer pets ‘Frankenpets’.
As with any advancement in technology, such as nuclear energy, how the science is used will depend the intelligence and intrinsic values of humans in positions of power . Hence I suppose Professor Doudna’s nightmare about Hitler.