CRISPR in the news - The first gene-edited babies have been born

The relatively-new genetic editing technology CRISPR is in the news this week.

The first report of gene-edited babies has come out, reported by a researcher in China who was trained and degreed at a university in the United States. Here’s a Slate article with more details if you haven’t heard about this breaking story yet. This Vox article gives a 101 intro to CRISPR.

CRISPR is a technology that uses a specially-designed protein with a short DNA segment attached to it to intentionally break a gene so that it doesn’t work and replace a region of DNA.

CRISPR has been imagined for decades in popular science fiction books and movies, but now in 2018 is it only starting to become a real possibility. It is hard to create the right protein, to make it go to the right gene, and to have it do its job without damaging other genes in the process. But we are getting to that future in which it might just be do-able.

CRISPR is controversial because some see it as the first step to creating a group of designer humans who might be viewed as biologically superior, either by those in the group or others outside of it.

The technology hasn’t been around long enough to prove it is safe yet, which is a big reason this has hit international news. It’s shocking to many (myself included) that it’s already being used on human embryos.

What’s especially controversial about CRISPR in this case is that the CRISPR technology was used to improve the baseline genetic status of the embryos rather than to prevent an actual disease risk already present in the DNA. The researcher says he used CRISPR to break up a gene that if left intact, made the babies susceptible to contracting HIV and other illnesses in life. Breaking the gene made them protected against HIV and other certain viruses.

Is this a good enough reason to do it? This is where people begin to separate themselves into different camps. Some people will say that using genetic technology to protect these babies against the potential of contracting HIV or other certain viruses in their lifetime is a good thing, others will say it wasn’t necessary, and even more that it is harmful to our global society.

Someone asked me today what I thought about the story, and I think it was a matter of time before someone was the first to use CRISPR, even though its safety hasn’t been proven yet. IVF was really controversial for the same reason, back when it was used for the first time.

But I am surprised with the gene that was chosen for this first-time case. I would have thought a researcher would first use the technology to stop the transmission to the next generation of some devastating disease that has been passing through a family for many generations.

I will continue to follow stories about CRISPR and post about them.

Interested in learning more about CRISPR beyond the links above? You can read a summary in the Wikipedia article. This article in Medium is pretty good one as well.