• Roman Bharati

Genetic Modification and Its Implications Outside of Science

As the world continues to evolve into a technologically advanced civilization, humans must often reflect upon whether newly introduced technologies should be utilized, and if so, to what extent. Genetic manipulation is one of these novel technologies. It has been controversial since its discovery with TALENs in 2011, followed by CRISPR-Cas 9 in 2013, and now, David Liu, an academic geneticist based in the U.S. has discovered base editing - a novel method of genetic manipulation without​ ​ the need for double-strand DNA breaks. Gene-editing is becoming more efficient, however, many have started to disesteem its capabilities with regards to its implications. This article aims to explain and evaluate the implications of genetic manipulation and its abilities to cure single-gene disorders such as Sickle cell anemia.

To understand the significance of this discovery, the problem must first be understood. As claimed by the Mayo Clinic, Sickle Cell Anemia, is a hereditary red blood cell disease caused by a mutation in the HBB gene in which there aren't enough red blood cells to carry oxygen throughout the body due to their sickle-like shape. For a child to be born with sickle cell anemia, both parents must carry the sickle cell gene. According to the world health organization, approximately 5% of the world’s population entails trait genes for hemoglobin disorders, primarily, sickle-cell disease. Importantly, this disease is caused by a singular genetic mutation, rendering it resolvable through the use of genetic manipulation, because it can easily target one gene.

There are many methods of genetic manipulation, chief among them being CRISPR-Cas9 and TALENs. Focussing on the function of TALENs it is a biological editing tool, a mixture of bacterial genes that operate with the cell’s mechanisms and a copy of the right DNA to resolve a mutation. Firstly, a TALEN must locate the gene in question through the use of TAL proteins that are able to recognize DNA sequences of A’s, C’s, G’s, and T’s. These TAL proteins have been manipulated by molecular scientists to mix and match this recognition. The result is a TAL protein that can locate and move to almost any gene. Once there, the mutated DNA within the gene must be cut out. To do this, scientists manipulate endonucleases, a gene found in most bacteria to literally cut it out. It is primitively designed to destroy any invading DNA, in order to protect against viruses. Once the right DNA sequence is added, homologous recombination, a system in which cells repair their DNA through the exchange of these sequences occurs. This concept can be used to explain practically all gene manipulations, including CRISPR-Cas9. With the rise of new technologies such as base editing that render it simpler and more efficient by requiring only one DNA strand to be cut, the implications must be considered before further development.

In a purely economic context, the primary negative outcome of genetic manipulation is that it is extremely expensive. Despite some breakthroughs that make it significantly more efficient, prices for gene-editing in order to cure single-gene disorders, according to Biocompare, can reach costs of $ 35,000 USD. These prices deter the incorporation of gene-editing into society and thus limit its potential. Positively, once price hurdles can be avoided, and distribution to the population can occur more frequently, higher amounts of people will be healthier, and this has many surrounding benefits. Mainly, the overall population will be healthier, in turn, creating a healthier workforce. Also, monetary benefits regarding health needs would be lowered, further strengthening the economy.

From an ethical perspective, positive outcomes include the literal cure to almost an entire group of hereditary diseases that were otherwise considered impossible to fully remove. Ethically, this is the rationale behind the excitement regarding gene-editing and is universally considered the right use of the technology. However, the ethical negative outcome is that there are still many issues, and there is no long-lasting research to determine the permanent effects gene-editing can have on the body. According to Dr. Stacy Wirt, sometimes TALENs and other biogenetic editing tools are cut more often than once and in more than one gene. Scientists still​ don’t know why this happens, but are working to find out. It is not ethically right to use this technology on humans if it is not deemed consistent.

Genetic modification is an incredible technology that could revolutionize the concept of genes and hereditary illnesses. However, a high price, combined with the inconsistent cutting of DNA, and no long-standing data, is in the way of this development. These issues must be addressed before moving forward.