Genetic editing is defined as any process of genomic engineering by which IDNA is inserted, removed or replaced by nuclease enzymes.
Beyond the definition of a “book”, such practices lead to a certain number of ethical considerations which must of course be taken into account. In 2015, the first attempt at genetic modification of a human embryo was given the green light, followed by an experiment aimed at improving the resistance of these unborn children to HIV.
Following this, in April 2016, the journal Nature News reported that the research team of Professor Fredrik Lanner of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm had received the necessary ethical approval to begin research that included embryo editing. humans, a practice strictly prohibited until a few years ago.
The barrier has been crossed: the experimental scope is no longer limited to laboratory animals or the treatment of chronic patientsBut humans are potentially capable of changing attributes of people even before they are born. Of course, with these results, wondering if gene editing is dangerous is extremely common in the general population.
Is Genetic Editing Dangerous? A possible double cut
Before delving into the ethics of these practices, we must understand, albeit succinctly, how they work. Genomic editing today relies on four different techniques:
- Meganucleases: use of natural nucleases which break the phosphodiester bonds of the DNA strand.
- Zinc fingers: structural motifs found in proteins which, if modified, can have high specificity for certain regions of DNA.
- Talen: use of restriction enzymes that can be designed to identify and “cut” into specific DNA sequences.
- CRISPR-CAS9: This technique requires a section in itself.
What is CRISPR-CAS9?
This technique deserves special mention, because it popularized in the scientific world “genetic target shooting” or gene targeting. While modification and use of zinc fingers costs an average of 30,000 euros per experiment, with CRISPR-CAS9 it only takes a few weeks of work and a budget of 30 euros. Even if only for economic reasons, this methodology has opened a myriad of doors in the world of genetic engineering.
To understand this technique, we need to understand the two components of its name. Here we are:
- CRISPR: a genetic region of certain bacteria that acts as an immune mechanism against certain viruses.
- CAS9: An enzyme that acts like a “genetic scalpel”, that is, it cuts and adds new regions of DNA to it with great precision.
In general, one could say that the CRISPR-CAS9 system is responsible for destroy regions of the genetic material of the virus that infected the bacteria, Inactivate its pathogenic capacity. Beyond that, this sequence allows the integration and modification of viral DNA regions in the bacteria itself. In this way, if the virus re-infects the microorganism, it will “know” its nature much better and will act more effectively against it.
To keep it simple, we will say that this methodology allows DNA modification at the cellular level, because the cuts and modifications do not only apply to the viral components. The RNA encoded in the DNA CRISPR region acts as a “guide dog”, guiding the CAS9 enzyme to the exact site in the cell’s DNA where the genetic sequences need to be cut and pasted. Although it requires a major exercise in abstraction, this technique remains a fascinating microscopic mechanism.
The cost reduction and ease of use of this technique was a new step forward for genome engineering., Which, without exaggeration, is a new window into the concept of human life and evolution as we know them. But is genetic engineering dangerous?
In the world of ethics, not all ends justify the means
The dogma that “science is unstoppable” it is an imperative that has guided research over the last century and which has an interesting double reading: First, scientists do not want to stop. Of course, the more you know, the more you want to know, because every discovery results in a series of questions that must be answered.
Second, this statement assumes that “whatever can be done must be done”. It is a technological imperative, because it is the obligation of every professional to broaden the bases of human knowledge, as long as the new information promotes the well-being and wisdom of the population. Beyond an opinion, an interpretation of the principle of responsibility proposed by the German philosopher Hans Jonas must be considered:
“Work so that the effects of your action are compatible with the permanence of truly human life on Earth.”
So, is everything worth it as long as the human species and its permanence on the planet are not compromised on a general level?
To finish, it should be noted that all these techniques are ethically neutral: Morality applies to the use given to them, and they should not be judged on the basis of their original premise.
Genetic editing in the germ line
Of course, germline genetic editing is the area of research that has generated the most controversy in recent times. We’re talking about life modification in its early stages: fetal development.
For example, in 2015, a group of researchers from Sun Yat-sen University (Guangzhou, China) genetically modified embryos to remove the gene responsible for beta thalassemia, a very serious disease that affects the blood.
While the research did not go very far with mediocre results, the goal remained clear: to break down the barrier of “natural” biological mechanisms to prevent the onset of disease in infants.
The two most posed risks with regard to these techniques are eugenics (the possibility of selecting human beings with certain characteristics) and the uncertainty that this practice brings (due to the ignorance of how it can affect human beings. future generations or the potential danger of putting these tools in the wrong hands).
Outraged, the scientists who undermine these practices are based on four essential pillars:
- The technology is not yet able to be applied safely, as its effect on the individual and future generations is unknown.
- There are already alternatives to prevent the birth of children with severe birth defects.
- These techniques are likely to be applied for non-therapeutic purposes.
- Carrying out reckless experiments can cause the general population to lose faith in science.
Of course, it’s hard not to agree with these points. In the scientific community, these practices are not completely erased, but caution is in order and to extend the bridges if necessary. In the textual words of scientific articles with regard to the subject, he refers:
“If a case arose that clearly demonstrated the therapeutic benefit of germline modification, we would bet on an open dialogue on how best to proceed.”
Therefore, some scientists propose to ban such scientific approaches in all countries where there are no iron regulations until the social, ethical and environmental implications of these practices are fully elucidated. At the same time, education and dissemination of the population on this new knowledge era would also be encouraged, so that unrelated people can understand and reflect on the benefits and repercussions they bring.
Conclusions and personal opinion
Strange as it may be in a purely informational space, due to what he writes, to lay out such ethical considerations and not giving a personal opinion is like throwing stones and hiding your hand.
First, we must recognize that “The natural alteration of things” is something that human beings have been doing for centuries. Everything is not based on the basal genetics of the individual, because for example, natural selection is a mechanism that no longer applies to our species. We survive despite our pathologies, certain chronicles which, in nature, would have automatically erased us. This results in biased gene conversion, by not responding to adaptive evolution.
Additionally, we have been modifying species in our environment for centuries through genetic selection (not transgenesis) to make the most of the land and the environment around us. It is no coincidence that several scientific communities propose that this geological era be renamed the Anthropocene. Not only have we changed ourselves as a species by varying natural genetic selection, but the environment has also been completely transformed based on our benefits.
that’s why the “natural” of the human being is an empty and meaningless concept. Still, that doesn’t necessarily mean “everything is worth it from here on out”. Science is knowledge and knowledge is responsibility. Any scientific practice must seek general welfare in one way or another, but also, as scientists, we have an obligation to convey our intentions and results to the people in a reliable and benevolent manner. . In many cases, this means adapting to the pace of social change and to the demands of the general population.
From there, everyone sets the limit. Should we ignore general opinion if what is sought is a common good? How far should the scientific community wait to implement certain methodologies? Can knowledge be obtained without risk? So is genetic editing dangerous? The debate is open.
- Capella, VB (2016). The revolution in gene editing by CRISPR-CAS 9 and the ethical and regulatory challenges it entails. Cahiers de bioéthique, 27 (2), 223-239.
- by Miguel Beriain, I., and Armaza, EA (2018). An ethical analysis of new gene editing technologies: CRISPR-CAS9 under discussion. In Annals of the Francisco Suárez Chair (Vol. 52, pp. 179-200).
- Lacadena, JR (2017). Genomic editing: science and ethics. Ibero-American Journal of Bioethics, (3), 1-16.