Move over Pasteur, Curie, Salk. Make way for Jennifer Doudna, a molecular biologist at UC Berkeley, and Emmanuelle Charpentier from the Max Planck Institute, whose genius has produced a tool that will bring about an end to many diseases like sickle-cell anemia, lupus and many forms of cancer.
Gene editing has been around for some time –since the 1970’s– but these scientists have created a set of molecular scissors that doctors can use to excise any undesirable parts of DNA in fetuses known to trigger certain diseases and medical conditions in their hosts. Called CRISPR (or CRISPR-CAS9), these scissors will enable scientists to manipulate the human genome –with ease and precision– to produce more desirable outcomes in human beings, similar to what chefs do with the ingredients they choose to produce award-winning meal recipes.
As the chef simile suggests, a Pandora’s Box comes with this development. Why stop at removing those parts of DNA known to cause disease? Should this new technology be used to make changes in human sperm and eggs to create humans with preferred characteristics, like specific eye color, body build, gender…and much, much more? Not so far-fetched as you might think, and I believe demand would be great. Today, many animal clinics in Europe use cloning technology to produce designer pets on order, and these clinics are thriving enterprises. So, we should expect the demand for designer babies and the evolution of an industry to satisfy that demand to be just as robust…perhaps more robust?
The ethical implications raised by CRISPR are enormous, and the science community knows this. While most of us have been mesmerized by the news chronicling the rise of The Donald in the Republican primary election for president, scientists from around the globe have been and are meeting to address these implications. They know that they must try to regulate the use of this ground-breaking technology. They understand the implications that abusive use will have on humankind. I want to believe that our scientists will self-regulate, but the task before them, I fear, is as daunting as trying to put toothpaste back in the tube. We’ll see.