RISPR

RISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), is the premium bacterial defence system that forms the basis for genome editing technology. (The Conversation, 2016) In genome engineering, the term “CRISPR” or “CRISPR-Cas9” is referring to numerous systems that are ordered to target specific stretches of genetic code and to edit DNA at specific locations in the genome. CRISPR was explored then advanced after scientists found that some varieties of bacteria had the ability to cut through DNA for self defence purposes. (Broad Institute, 2018) It is also used for new diagnostic tools, which researchers use to permanently advance genes in living organisms and hopefully in the future will use it to correct mutations for treatment of genetic causes of disease. (The Conversation, 2016) Genome editing technology in general has been around for a while, but CRISPR is much more precise and efficient than other methods. (Broad Institute, 2018)

Scientists have developed CRISPR to allow them to edit genes from any organism. CRISPR effectively does two things: it searches through a cell’s genetic material to find a specific DNA sequence, and once the match is found, it cuts the DNA. (The Conversation, 2016) Genetic diseases contribute to a high percentage of healthcare spending and death on an international scale, therefore many research groups are using CRISPR as a genetic tool to try to reduce these high numbers and combat the diseases. (The Conversation, 2017) Researchers can now study the gene’s function and can target and modify “typos” in the three-billion-letter sequence of the human genome to treat genetic disease. (Broad Institute, 2018) This genome editing technology now allows scientists to efficiently create models which can be used to accelerate research of particular diseases such as various cancers and mental illnesses. (Broad Institute, 2018) Bacteria with the ability to cut through DNA keep portions of virus DNA from previous attacks. When attacked by a virus it has been infected with previously, it uses an enzyme to find and cut the virus’ DNA. (The Conversation, 2016) To edit a DNA sequence using CRISPR, it needs to know where to cut which is done by copying CRISPR “spacer” sequences into short RNA sequences to guide the enzyme to matching sequences of DNA. (Broad Institute, 2018) This DNA guides the Cas9 enzyme to the targeted site which it will then act as a microscopic pair of molecular scissors to cut the DNA strand. (The Conversation, 2016) Once the DNA is cut, the cell will then repair the cut by joining the ends (losing some DNA material and perhaps disrupting the function of the gene that was cut), or it can use any additional DNA to patch up the gap. (The Conversation, 2016) So if extra DNA is provided, the cell uses the it to repair the cut. Researchers often use the cell’s own repair process to their advantage, influencing the repair of the DNA sequence. (The Conversation, 2016)

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The positive features associated with the genetic process include it being a lot more precise and efficient compared to any other method. (The Conversation, 2016) It provides scientists with the opportunity to edit embryos one gene at a time, learn about the events that happen in the first five days of life, understand more about infertility, miscarriage and stillbirth, plus many diseases and disorders, which occur by making better models of animals and cells thanks to CRISPR. (The Conversation, 2017) It’s also customisable compared to other existing genome editing tools which means they can be matched with tailor-made “guide” RNA (gRNA) sequences designed to lead them to their DNA targets, specific for individuals. (Broad Institute, 2018) There do not appear to be many negative features associated with the genetic process however a few that can be identified include small mistakes still being made as the technology isn’t perfect and it is still a work in progress. (The Conversation, 2017) The embryos used for testing would also not yet be suitable to transfer to a patient as there may be dangers or side effects we are unaware of therefore we aren’t really at the point where this technology could be ready for use. (The Conversation, 2017)

This genetic process interacts with the relevant factor of ethics as unlike many scientific research projects which before CRISPR worked on embryos that were not capable of ever becoming a baby, the study of this technology involves working with healthy human embryos that could grow into a human but rather used specifically for research purposes. (The Conversation, 2017) Scientific research is often faced with these challenges where the acceleration of a project is not likely to be adhered to without facing quite large moral and ethical challenges. (The Conversation, 2017) Scientists must obey strict ethical guidelines, and are often monitored closely by individuals such as just scientists and doctors and members of the general public. Research using human embryos is highly regulated, the rules vary and are different between countries. (The Conversation, 2017) In Australia, the National Health and Medical Research Council has a strict set of guidelines, which leads to all research performed on human embryos needing to be monitored very closely, with a lot of limitations implied. (The Conversation, 2017)

I think this area of genetics is very interesting as it poses opportunity for jobs that don’t even exist yet, it shows advancement in technology and it will open up many pathways in the future. CRISPR is an amazing type of technology as a few years ago we would just have to deal with genetic diseases, but now we can modify our genetic code to prevent such diseases from occurring. CRISPR could also be used negatively however, whereby criminals could change even the smallest sequence in their genetic code therefore no longer identify with DNA that was previously recorded as their own. Science is not as simple as just having the ability to perform a biological process successfully in a laboratory or scientific setting. Research must only proceed with caution, preparation and carefulness. Advancement is to proceed as long as many types of people including various biologists, IVF specialists, psychologists, bioethicists, social scientists, policy makers, disability advocates, and most importantly consumers must collaborate and work together. If in the near future scientists are in the position whereby they may perform genome editing safely in humans, this should only occur if the rest of society considers it useful, appropriate and desirable. This could be done by voting or public interest. In regards to the use of human embryos for research, I believe it is okay as it is for research and research only. There may be cultures or individuals who deem this type of activity as unethical, morally wrong and so on but personally I believe that science has and will continue to prove amazing things about life, CRISPR itself will really change the world and peoples’ lives. If I were told that my child’s DNA put themselves at risk of a genetic disease and that I could either leave it if I thought it were morally wrong or choose to edit the DNA code in hope that the disease wont effect their life then I would 100% choose the latter, but only if this technology was advanced to a stage where it would be safe with no side effects as a result of the genetic code’s edit.

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