The danger of AI has been the subject of debate since its inception, with Elon Musk saying at the SXSW 2018, “AI is far more dangerous than nukes,” as quoted by business news site Forbes. It’s the same with CRISPR, as the new genetic engineering tool has the potential to delay aging, cure cancer, and alter humans for better or for worse. This technology was discovered in 1993, but it is slowly being known in the media. However, CRISPR remains unknown despite its vast potential in the genetic engineering field.
Perception On Genome Editing and CRISPR Technology
Via journal portal Research Gate, Masako Uchiyama, Akiko Nagai, and Kaori Muto surveyed 44.360 general adults (GAs) in the general Japanese population aged 20-79-years-old and 6,522 Japanese patients aged 20-79 years from February to March 2017. The GAs group included 10,881 respondents (24.5% response rate) while the patients group had 4,195 respondents (64.3%). The researchers extracted participants who said their disease conditions were related to their genetic makeup (1,044 patients).
With regard to the perception of the term “genome editing,” 10.1% of males and 3.3% of females in the GAs group said they “understand what it means,” averaging at 6.6%. 17.2% of male and 5.7% of female patients answered “understand what it means,” averaging at 11.5%. 31.9% of male and 20.4% of female GAs heard about the term compared to 36% of male and 25.1% of female patients. However, 58.1% of male and 76.35% of female GAs (67.2% average) have never heard of genome editing compared to 46.8% of male and 69.2% of female patients (58% average). Patients were more cognizant of genome editing than GAs as they might be more interested in this technology.
Bio Techniques, an international life science journal, said scientists represented 56% of their survey respondents, but the organizations the participants came from varied, ranging from academic (52%), biotech/biopharma (27%), and health care (14%). According to the journal’s 2019 survey, 37% of respondents were currently working with CRISPR and of those, 78% reported using only CRISPR technologies. Of those who were not working with CRISPR (67%), 39% said they would be using the technology within the following year.
CRISPR was mainly used in gene knockout (78%), cell lines (43%), mutation corrections (35%), pathogen diagnostics (17%), and high-throughput screening (13%). When asked about the “best overall improvement to CRISPR” considering its diverse applications, CRISPR-editing of RNA and tri-functional CRISPR systems scored 26%, followed by Broader PAM specificity (22%). With regard to choosing the best method for improving efficiency in gene knockout, the respondents mentioned RNP (39%), dual gRNA (35%), and synthetic RNA (22%).
Regarding challenges, 70% cited efficiency/accuracy, 48% said in production of off-target effects, 22% stated verification of edits. Despite these hurdles, 100% of respondents believed that the number of studies on CRISPR will increase in the next three years while 70% believed “that there will be a shift in its applications.”
As for the ethics surrounding the use of CRISPR, 45% believed that the current regulations are sufficient while 40% were unsure. When asked about the main challenges with regard to bringing CRISPR to market, the respondents cited regulation (25%), ethics (20%), as well as cos and issues with the technology (15%).
When asked if they agree or disagree with the statements surrounding the implied future of CRISPR, 50% agreed that it is being used for research purposes in human embryos that will not be brought to term. 60% agreed that CRISPR is being used to prevent serious genetic disorders in human embryos that will be brought to term. Only 5% agreed that CRISPR technologies can be used to enhance traits in embryos that will be brought to term and 20% agreed with none of these statements.
What Is CRISPR?
CRISPR stands for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats,” which is part of the immune system of bacteria against bacteriophages. Bacteriophages are viruses that inject their DNA and compromise bacteria’s genomes “to act as factories.”
The bacterium saves the remains of the virus’s genetic code to produce “special attack enzymes” called Cas9, albeit when the bacterium survives the attack, said YEC and Brad Plumer and colleagues of Vox, a news and opinion website. The Cas9 carries the genetic code (think of it as a reference or an archive) and when it encounters a virus, it checks if the virus’s RNA matches with the “reference.”
If the genetic code matches with that of the virus, the Cas9 enzyme chops the virus’s DNA to neutralize the attacks. Interestingly, scientists found out that it is programmable. Programming means we can modify, add, or remove DNA parts with ease. CRISPR can possibly slash gene editing costs, minimize the time to conduct experiments, and lower the process’s complexity. CRISPR’s applications go beyond genetic diseases. In fact, it also opens up research opportunities for combatting other diseases like cancer. It can even slow aging or extend our lifespan.
How Can CRISPR Be Used?
For example, CRISPR can be used by crop scientists to edit the genes of various crops to make them more delicious or nutritious or make them better survivors of heat and stress. Crop scientists can use CRISPR to remove allergens in peanuts.
In theory, CRISPR can be utilized to create powerful new antibiotics and antivirals considering that we are facing a shortage of effective antibiotics. As bacteria evolve to resist antibiotics, CRISPR can be potentially be leveraged to eliminate certain bacteria more precisely. There are some researchers who are working on a CRISPR system that aims at HIV and Herpes viruses.
CRISPR technologies can modify an entire species— a concept called “gene drive.” In fruit fly mates, there’s a 50-50 chance that it will pass any gene to its offspring. But with CRISPR, scientists can guarantee that a particular gene gets passed on.
Hence, scientists could modify mosquitoes to only bear male offspring and use gene drive to propagate that trait in the entire population. The population would go extinct as time passes. Vox’s Dylan Matthews said, “Or you could just add a gene making them resistant to the malaria parasite, preventing its transmission to humans.”
How About Ethics?
CRISPR is sometimes perceived as “Pandora’s box” considering the controversy and ethical debate surrounding its use. Even though it was discovered way back in 1993, CRISPR is still in its infancy. Ethical concerns technologies should be addressed logically. But scientists should also not forget to highlight critical thinking as a significant part of research and development.
CRISPR is indeed revolutionary as it can alter species or create powerful antibiotics. Scientists and the general public will have to expect more ethical debates on CRISPR use in the years to come.