CRISPR/Cas9: The biological “mixed blessing” of the 21st century

Του Νικόλα Μαρκοζάνη*

What are the frontiers of human interference with nature? This is the question I ask

myself when I come across research papers or news focused on the genome-editing

potential of CRISPR/Cas9. To begin with, however, what does this fancy name

stand for? CRISPR/Cas9 is a defence mechanism utilized by bacteria to protect

themselves against foreign DNA. This complex is part of the acquired immunity of

bacteria that allows them to detect, cut and degrade DNA deriving from viruses. The

ability of CRISPR/Cas9 to attack and destroy viral DNA has been known for years.

In 2012, J. Doudna and E. Charpentier repurposed CRISPR/Cas9 so that it can target

DNA of highly specific sequences of interest. This particular discovery revolutionised

the tools and techniques to approach genome editing, namely the introduction or

deletion of desired and known DNA sequences of other cells or living organisms. As a

result, scientists can, nowadays, design CRISPR/Cas9 to precisely identify and

activate or inactivate genes or sequences that have a specific function. For instance,

researchers have engineered CRISPR/Cas9 in order to recognise the DNA of HIV-1,

which is the virus that causes AIDS. This approach has been successful in human cells

in vitro (namely in the laboratory, “test-tube” experiments) and in animal models.

This and other relevant discoveries suggest a promising future to cure genetic

diseases. On the other hand, it can be easily perceived that CRISPR/Cas9 design tool

may be catastrophic if it falls into the wrong hands. It has been almost a year now,

since the first announcement was made (19 November 2018). It was true. The first

ever genetically edited babies were born. Lulu and Nana are the two pseudonyms

given to the twins born in October 2018 in China. Chinese scientist He Jiankui

secretly performed an experiment where he exploited the CRISPR/Cas9 mechanism

to delete the gene CCR5 to provide resistance to HIV in the two in vitro fertilised

babies. Even though the babies were born healthy, widespread controversy and

criticism propagated rapidly around the scientific community, which inevitably

shocked the whole world. Following that, researchers and intellectuals around the

globe started asking the consequences of such actions.

Obviously, many ethical issues arise that combined with the power of gene editing look, sound and feel scary, especially for laypeople, who do not have the sufficient understanding and

background knowledge to grasp complicated topics like this one. Thus, many a

question arises that agonizes public opinion. What should we, as individuals and as a

society, do then? What are the limits of our knowledge? Who sets the relevant

borderline of acceptable and ethical experiments? Is our knowledge our own house

of cards …?

*Ο Νικόλας Μαρκοζάνης είναι Τελειόφοιτος προπτυχιακός φοιτητής Βιοϊατρικής Πανεπιστήμιου Sheffield

Image Source: vox.com


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