Genome editing, or gene editing, might sound really futuristic, but is actually becoming a very common procedure. Usually, the media and news outlets focus on gene editing in humans. However, since the technology has been available, gene editing has mostly been used and tested with bacteria, mice, and other small living organisms. This ultimately led to researchers and scientists being able to change the DNA in animals, and eventually, humans.
Genome editing is still in an early phase, and requires years and years of research, as well as regulations to properly flourish. There are also ethical questions to be answered. Although gene editing can lead to curing or preventing diseases, it can also be used to change physical traits, like eye color, for example. In addition, gene editing might allow scientists to edit a baby’s DNA while still in the womb. However, some compare this procedure to a “create your character” type of scenario, and do not deem it ethical.
How does gene editing work?
Rewriting DNA also means correcting harmful mutations and disabling target genes that can cause complications in humans. In essence, gene editing acts like “scissors,” cutting the DNA at a specific spot, and replacing it. A robust understanding of genetics tech also aids the development of new treatments, and further improves gene therapy.
Procedures are safe, as medical professionals continuously test outcomes on smaller living organisms, as well as small animals, like mice. Mice and humans share about 85% of their genes, so by changing a gene in a mouse, scientists can observe the change in the mouse’s health. This is a great way to predict how human genes would be affected with a similar genome change.
What is CRISPR?
The very first gene editing technology was developed in 1985, but studying human DNA began earlier, before the 1960s. Nowadays, scientists use CRISPR, a gene editing tool that they started tinkering with around 2007. The tool has evolved since then, and is now simpler to use, faster, cost-effective, and more accurate than any other older tech.
CRISPR technology is a powerful genome editing tool. It allows scientists and researchers to alter DNA sequences and modify gene function. Disease prevention and correcting genetic defects are also things CRISPR can accomplish. The technology is already widely used for scientific research, however, it also raises ethical concerns.
Is genome editing safe?
As far as ethics goes, concerns do exist regarding genome editing of human eggs. For instance, if you change genes in a human, the changes are not passed down to the next generation. However, if changing the genes of a human being while still in the womb, it is possible that it can affect the child’s egg or sperm, making the genetic changes inheritable. And humanity still doesn’t know how this type of change might affect future generations.
A high-profile group of scientists, researchers and ethicists recently gathered in Washington, D.C., to discuss the ethics of human gene editing. They’ve concluded that, as society evolves, they will revisit the idea of genome editing embryos, but until then, the focus remains on research and other types of gene editing. Current approved procedures are safe, but there are still many areas that need further testing and research.
What are the benefits of gene editing?
- Curing genetic and complex diseases – Eliminating genes that cause diseases opens new doors for treatments for a wide variety of illnesses, including Alzheimer’s, heart disease, and more. Gene therapy is also used to treat eye disease, and early research shows that blood disorders might be treatable, as well.
- Eliminating inherited diseases – Although trials are still being run for this and extensive research still needs to be done, diseases that are passed down in families might be eliminated. Diseases like Huntington’s, for example, might someday be simply removed from the family DNA.
- Delaying aging – This is another area scientists are exploring with gene editing. Cardiovascular diseases, which are strongly age-related, could be treated, thus extending human life span. To this day, cardiovascular disease remains one of the most under-researched causes of death, in spite of being among the biggest causes of death in the world.
One of the most important takeaways is that even though the science and the technology are here, we still have a lot to learn. Extensive research has to be conducted and tests have to be ran to ensure proper safety when treating real patients. Curing diseases is still at the forefront of genome editing, however, DNA alterations for changing physical appearance isn’t off the table, either. The concerns surrounding gene editing are valid, including aspects of safety and ethics.
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