CRISPR-Cas9, called CRISPR for short, stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. It is a groundbreaking gene editing technology that can add, delete, or alter our genetic material. This was discovered by Dr. Jennifer Doudna and Dr. Emmanuelle Charpentier in 2012, who were both awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2020. This technology can eventually lead to the cure for many genetic disorders.
How does it work?
Our cells contain the molecule DNA, which is the code that determines our traits. Our DNA consists of segments called genes which correspond to specific traits. CRISPR contains two parts: a special kind of protein called Cas9, which cuts the DNA,
and a guide RNA, a molecule which locates which genes need to be edited. Guide RNA is made to fit to the specific gene that scientists want to edit. Scientists then combine the Cas9 protein with the guide RNA and send it to the cells which need to be edited. The guide RNA then locates the specific DNA, and the Cas9 protein cuts the strand. Then, the remaining DNA is either modified or a new edited version of the cut strand gets inserted. This process was originally derived from bacteria when they used Cas9 proteins to cut virus DNA and defend themselves.
Scientists realize that there is great potential for CRISPR-Cas9. They are researching its usage in the biomedical industry with the aim of preventing or curing genetic diseases/disorders like cancer, sickle cell disease, hemophilia, HIV, and more.
Today, CRISPR is in its beginning stages as geneticists and medical researchers explore the possibilities of this technology. As of now, testing is primarily on animals or individual human cells. CRISPR is not just limited to the biomedical field, it is also used in the agriculture industry to enhance crops.
Is it Ethical?
While there is hope for this technology, there are still ethical concerns behind it. There are many questions around the use of CRISPR in altering human embryos. In 2018, biophysicist He Jiankui announced the creation of the first genetically modified twin babies. He was sentenced to 3 years in jail, a fine of 3 million yuan, and was condemned by the scientific community for illegal and unethical human experimentation. This raised concerns of the ethical consequences behind CRISPR, since this technology is recent and its effects haven’t been properly studied. The editing of human embryos is currently illegal in many countries including the U.K, China, and Ireland.
There is no doubt that CRISPR technology holds great promise for the future of mankind, but it still needs a lot of work before we can safely and effectively harness its potential.