Editing our DNA- The answer to our mortality?

From our previous article related to the blueprint of life, we have certain knowledge on various aspects of our genetic material i.e., DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). A number of aspects were covered in the article such as the emerging technologies for DNA sequencing, the arrangement of nucleotides (A, T, C, and G) that form the DNA molecule, partial and complete sequencing of DNA which led to revolutionary findings and further their application in a wide range. These findings help us to understand, how we function at a molecular level that leads to additional growth in personalized healthcare, relating evolutionary and ancestral information to fight various genetic diseases.  

To fight these diseases and other problems from a biological perspective, we require knowledge and technology for the same. The booming technology provides us with surplus data on ourselves (nature)  accentuating the introspective nature of biological sciences. We as human beings have this inherent proclivity to push the frontiers of knowledge we acquire and thus, it began from a Mediterranean port of Santa Pola on Spain’s Costa Blanca. A journey which would culminate in the most fascinating and dreadful discovery of all time in the field of biomedical sciences. A discovery which would change the way we look at fate and our tangible life. A way to edit the oldest chapters ever written in human history that forecasts the progression of our life from a single cell to multicellular being, the advent of precision gene (DNA) editing, CRISPR-Cas systems.

Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) are characteristic segments(regions)  of DNA present in certain types of prokaryotic(bacterial) genome. These are identified as a type of defense mechanism for the bacteria to ward off invaders such as viruses which prey on these organisms. They consist of genetic information of the previously encountered viruses and preserve it as a part of their genome for pre-emptive action. When these viruses come knocking on their doors in the future, they will be ready to subdue the hostility and survive.  

This could be an ingenious mechanism as most viruses that attack the prokaryotic cell (host) will inject their viral DNA into the host. They produce proteins to hijack the cellular machinery of the host which further produces more viral components to increase its viral population. Their population will be comparable to colonizers and colonies. Thus, to defend themselves from such a breakdown, prokaryotes evolved a mechanism to fight these viruses. This mechanism involved storing the information of the invading viral genome by incorporating small fragments of the viral genome, which is distinctive of the virus into their genome. The incorporation of the viral genome into the prokaryotic genome is known as CRISPR element.

A targeted degradation of the viral genome will be performed by these CRISPR elements along with specialized proteins such as Cas systems. The degradation depends on the specificity of the incorporated viral genome. There is a widespread research going on to describe the mechanism of CRISPR-Cas systems. Albeit the discovery of CRISPR-Cas system is accidental, its utility was envisioned and sought after. The discovery of such a system is added to other gene-editing systems such as TALENS (Transcription activator-like effector nucleases) and ZNFs (Zinc-finger nucleases). However, CRISPR-Cas systems can be used as a better alternative because of its viability, specificity, flexibility and easy to handle. We can perform targeted editing of the desired genome by adding the desired sequence to be degraded onto the CRISPR element of the system. This mechanism opened up a world full of possibilities in the field of biomedical research. Thereby, justifying the furor around the CRISPR-Cas systems. Check this video to get an overview on how CRISPR-Cas systems work and their potential. (Meet CRISPR (www.statnews.com))

The potential for such powerful systems is extensive. The paradigm shift that CRISPR systems can bring about and has already brought about in the field of biomedical sciences has been unprecedented. This meant that we can practically play editors with the code of life, DNA. We can employ these systems to cultivate bio-engineered plants with desired properties. This will help in devising better therapies to target genetic diseases by honing on the fundamental cause of genetic diseases i.e., DNA. In the field of active research where animal models are utilized to study human diseases, CRISPR systems, in particular, are a boon to the scientists because now they have the ability to make more reliable animal models for human diseases.

These systems will provide the edge to validate their initial findings and fill in more confidence to extrapolate the evidence produced from an animal model to that of a human. They have been deployed in the war against cancer by gene editing, using CRISPR systems on immune cells collected from the patient. This will enable the cells to identify cancer cells and can be reintroduced into the patient’s blood. This technique is proven to be effective in killing cancer cells and offering patients a better prognosis in specific types of cancer.

Thus, CRISPR systems have paved new avenues in the field of drug discovery and development. CRISPR systems have been engaged to design assassin mosquitoes (not kidding) where they contain in them a cassette of genetic information for targeting a property of the organism which makes them harmful for humans. Essentially, when these assassin mosquitoes are released into the environment, they reproduce with their wild counterparts leading to the silencing of the property which causes human harm over a generation of mosquitoes. Here is another video from STAT which explains in brief on how these cassettes or as it is called ‘gene drive’ technology works.

Like all technologies with potential, CRISPR technology as well has been inundated with market appreciation and recognition. Despite a  high profile patent battle which is being settled in court for rights on CRISPR technology involving reputed institutes such as Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, there are many start-ups which have emerged revolving around this technology. Investors have flocked to invest in these companies enthusiastically respecting its life-changing potential and prospects in the near future for such a revolutionary technology. Editas Medicine, Intellia Therapeutics, and Crispr Therapeutics are few of the CRISPR driven start-ups which have shined in the market. Many of the therapies involving CRISPR is either been approved for treatment or is in clinical trials, currently.

Well, we have been desensitized just enough to know that purity in the goodness of a novel technology with life-altering potential is often tainted with human spirit and zealousness to alter the course of nature, time and again. Given the extent of the influence this technology can have on all our lives soon enough, there are few things to be considered. Are we the rightful editors of nature’s book of life? Gene editing allows us to edit the shortcomings of our mortality and can alter the interactions that we will have with our fellow beings and because we shouldn’t possess a sense of ownership of the other species.

There is the potential to make ‘designer babies’ with such technologies where you can choose the characteristics of your offspring and a possibility which is quite accessible to create your own army of designed soldiers of war (we have never been the champions of contentment). As far as potential for human good is concerned, gene editing can help us to tackle the wretchedness in human life such as genetic diseases, tackle antibiotic resistance, overcome hurdles (Olympic season)  of cancer and dreaded diseases such as Zika, Malaria, AIDS, and Tuberculosis. The possibilities for good are endless.

But, because we live in a society which is quasi-transparent and vested interests have a great influence on the utility of powerful technologies, there must be a way to bring about a participative form of conducting research. Review boards aside, we need people to interact with the researchers and should hold enough authority to have healthy discussions to influence research which can affect humanity. When we need people to vote for the representatives of a country, shouldn’t the democracy be porous enough to seep into the layers of life which can affect the course of humanity itself?

– BackYourScience Editorial.





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