Can the future of genetic editing be summed up in one word? Yes: CRISPR. An acronym for “clustered, regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats,” CRISPR is a biological system for altering DNA that is easier, more cost-effective, and quicker than older genetic engineering methods.
Co-discovered in 2012 by Molecular biologist Professor Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier. At the time, Professor Doudna’s team at Berkeley, University of California was studying how bacteria defends itself against viral infection.
CRISPR is a natural system that can be used by biologists to make precise changes to DNA, accelerating all kinds of research. For example, there are several biotech firms currently working on the theory that the system could be used to boost the function of the body’s T-cells improving the immune system and its ability to recognize and kill diseases like cancer, as well as disorders of the blood and immune system.
Since its discovery, the CRISPR technology has been adopted by many laboratories around the world applying it to bacteria, animals, plants, basically any organism being studied.
Starting in June of 2017, the first CRISPR trial began. Hoping to eliminate the HPV virus, the trial team aims to disable the tumor growth mechanism found inside HPV cells. While the usual method involves extracting and re-injecting cells into the affected area, the technique of the HPV trial is non-invasive.
Between the rest of 2017 and the beginning of 2018, there are 20 more clinical trials set to start. Most of the trials will take place in China with different trials focusing on various types of cancer, such as breast, bladder, kidney, and prostate cancers. The focal point of the trials is disabling cancer’s PD-1 cells that trick the immune system into not attacking the cells.
The emerging technology opens the door to a flood of questions without answers. Safety and ethical issues are called to attention. Regarding equality and justice, questions like “who will have access to potential treatment” and “whose treatments will receive priority” come to mind. Concerning safety and ethics, questions such as “will the engineering be used for genetic enhancement” and “will the changes to DNA create new diseases that will be passed down to the next generation” are on the forefront.
There are still many questions that need to be answered and many trials that need to be studied before being able to fully understand the potential risks and rewards of CRISPR and technology like it. However, the discovery of this new technology promises a better understanding of human disease and human DNA.