Gene Editing for Healthier, Long-Lived and Super-Smart Designer Babies

If the human genome is the book of life, then CRISPR technology is its Microsoft Word, notes the Financial Times. The cut-and-paste genome editing technique, invented only three years ago, can remove stretches of DNA and, if required, insert new ones.

In April, a team in China revealed they had partially succeeded in excising the gene for beta thalassaemia, an inherited blood disorder, from a human embryo. The research, published in the Beijing-based journal Protein & Cell with the title “CRISPR/Cas9-mediated gene editing in human tripronuclear zygotes,” ignited a wide-ranging debate about what types of gene-editing research are ethical, and was so controversial that both Nature and Science declined to publish it.

Re-using a trick borrowed form bacterial immune systems, the CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) technique allows scientists to cut out faulty sections of DNA and replace them with healthy ones. In the two-part process, first an RNA “guide” molecule marks the DNA strand that needs to be removed or fixed, then a Cas9 protein attaches to the DNA and cuts out the strand, which in some cases can be replaced by a new one. This is how the Chinese scientists eliminated the gene for beta thalassaemia from their human embryo.

Scientists say CRISPR is cheap and easy to use compared with other genome editing techniques, and the technology has become a magnet for venture capital, even though medical applications are several years away. Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute in La Jolla, a research center focused on precision medicine, said:

It’s completely revamped the way we think about genetic disorders and how to fix them.

Open-Ended, All-Purpose Genome Editing Technique for Inheritable Genetic Modifications

DNA, scissorsThe Wall Street Journal reports that CRISPR is raising hopes for a future generation of medicines treating intractable diseases like cancer, cystic fibrosis and sickle-cell anemia. Katrine Bosley, CEO of Editas Medicine, a biotech startup whose mission is to translate its genome editing technology into a novel class of human therapeutics that enable precise and corrective molecular modification to treat the underlying cause of a broad range of diseases at the genetic level, said:

What if you could go right to the root cause of that disease and repair the broken gene? That’s what people are excited about.

CRISPR could be a defining technology for the future of humanity, because it could allow for inheritable genetic modifications that can be passed down the generations. Modifications could include resistance to cancer and viral diseases, but also desired physical characteristics, increased lifespans, and superior intelligence.

Innovative biotech companies such as Editas Medicine are betting on that, and someday soon unaltered people may be living alongside a younger, gene-edited generation, superior in all respects. The super-rich, and they alone, could become healthier, long-lived and super-smart, and pass these characteristics to their children.

Forget the abortion debate and the recent controversy after the decision of the UK government to allow “three-parents babies.” The operational availability of an open-ended, all-purpose genome editing technique for inheritable genetic modifications would allow humans – or at least the super-rich – to create super-human designer babies and eventually remake humanity according to better specs.

That, of course, has prompted the religious right and many so-called “bioethicists” to demand a moratorium on advanced genetic research. But top researchers like CRPSPR co-inventor Jennifer Doudna, who won a $3m Breakthrough prize last year and is rumored to be in line for a Nobel, are against over-regulating fundamental research.

Images from Stanford School of Medicine and Caroline Davis2010/Flickr.

Giulio Prisco is a freelance writer specialized in science, technology, business and future studies.