CRISPR: The Ethical Dilemma

Britney Wilson, Guest Writer

What if you could alter your appearance? What if you could change the appearance of your children? What if you could give your child long legs or blue eyes instead of the same dreadful brown eyes that your mother passed down to you? CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is a breakthrough in genome editing that could help in not only redesigning physical attributes in appearance but also can aid in abolishing familial diseases. 

CRISPR is a cluster of DNA that works faster and more efficiently to insert, modify, or delete genes in people of all ages. CRISPR was introduced in 1987, but substantive research surrounding the technology did not develop until the mid-2000s when Jennifer Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley and Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research and Hannover Medical School in Germany combined their great collection of research surrounding CRISPR. Together, the two women discovered that when CRISPR is coupled with a protein called Cas9 to create a system called CRISPR-Cas9, the entire system becomes more direct and stable. Doudna’s and Charpentier’s teams found that when CRISPR is employed to attack bacteriophage, bacteria reproduce the interspaced palindromic DNA into short, regularly interspaced RNA’s called CRNA’s. An additional strand of RNA called tracrRNA operates alongside Cas9 to produce the aforementioned CrRNA, and they simultaneously bombard the virus to terminate disease or unwanted traits. The Cas9 protein, a nuclease, acts as an enzyme that allows CRISPR to precisely cut the DNA at exact spots to target and extract specific unwanted strands. To prove this new system with Cas9, Doudna and Charpentier needed to unite tracrRNA and CrRNA to create “single-guide” RNA that would act concomitantly with Cas9 and eliminate targeted DNA without deviation. This astonishing advancement in the genome-editing field quickly increased interest in CRISPR in recent years. 

What does this mean? This means that diseases such as sickle cell anemia and cancer could be eradicated in the next several years. The close examination of CRISPR has not only highlighted its pragmatic attributes, but also its potential. CRISPR has eradicated several inherited diseases and has the potential to abolish cancer, a widespread, unbearable disease which after decades of research, scientists have yet to discover a definitive cure. Shannon Palus, of Discover magazine, states in her article “The Ethics of Editing Human Embryos” that while unease surrounds the potential hazard of post-CRISPR consequences due to the unfamiliarity of the technology, more testing still has to be done before scientists can use CRISPR commercially (20). CRISPR and CRISPR-Cas9 both are very fresh in the genome editing world, yet like anything that is put in a new environment, there must be time allotted for adjustment. CRISPR can prove itself to those who doubt that the technology can eradicate diseases in familial genes and eventually all hereditary diseases through the science of thousands of researchers who have spent countless hours locating that singular strand of DNA that causes someone to have sickle cell anemia, diabetes, cystic fibrosis, and other gruesome illness that attack the lives of individuals around the world.