By Caroline Ruskin
NEW YORK — An ambitious study expected to begin this month at the University of Pennsylvania hopes to prove that there’s more to genome editing than creating designer babies.
Researchers say they will use CRISPER-Cas9 — a specialized stretch of DNA with an enzyme called Cas9 that can cut through genes like a pair of scissors — to create “expert cancer killers” capable of attacking multiple myeloma, sarcoma and melanoma, according to a Jan. 17 article in the MIT Technology Review.
While it can be used to create children free of their parents’ genetic defects, CRISPR-Cas9 — pronounced “crisper,” as in crackers and short for “Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats” — has profound implications.
According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Shoukhrat Mitalipov, an embryologist from the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, led the first CRISPR-Cas9 assisted experiment in America in 2015.
Previously, as reported by CBS News, all human genome editing experiments were credited to scientists in China.
Using this technology, Mitalipov altered the DNA of human embryos that could not properly develop due to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a heart condition where the heart thickens without an obvious cause.
Although none of the embryos was allowed to develop for more than a few days due to ethical concerns, Mitalipov demonstrated the feasibility of efficiently correcting defective genes in human embryos, a process called germline engineering which raises the possibility of the development of new treatments.
But it’s not only babies that could benefit from CRISPR.
In an article published in 2016 in Nature, the international weekly journal of science, Carl June, a medical doctor at the University of Pennsylvania, announced that he hoped to remove T-cells, a type of immune cell, from patients and perform CRISPR edits that would allow the T-cells to attack and destroy cancer cells.
“It’s about testing whether it’s even possible to successfully edit these immune cells to make them do — in human bodies, not a petri dish — what we want them to do,” June told Time Magazine.
Despite the promising research, human genome editing is controversial.
Religious organizations, civil society groups and even biotech companies have raised objections to germline engineering, or gene editing that takes place in eggs, sperm or early-stage embryos, arguing that it could alter the course of human evolution.
A 2016 global threat assessment by James Clapper, U.S director of national intelligence, referred to CRISPR-Cas9 as a potential “weapon of mass destruction” that could be misused by terrorists to develop crop plagues or deadly viruses that could shred human DNA.
Critics also worry about the use of gene editing to create humans that are more aesthetically or genetically acceptable, for example, with brown hair, blue eyes or a lower-than-average risk of autism.
In a 2016 interview with National Geographic, Nicanor Austriaco, a theologian and biologist at Providence College, said “the boundary between treatment and enhancement is very, very fuzzy.”
Regardless, one thing is clear: Exponential advances in technology make correcting defective genes less far-fetched than it used to be.
As Jennifer Doudna, a biochemist and pioneer of gene editing technology, told Business Insider: “There’s just a really tremendous feeling of excitement for the potential of CRISPR.”
Caroline Ruskin is a student at Lycée Français in New York. This is an edited version of an article published in the LYNX Newspaper, the school’s student-led newspaper, and is published with permission.
—Above and featured:Scanning electron micrograph of a healthy human T-cell. Photo by NIAID/U.S. government work at Flickr.com.