An incredible scientific tool that can edit human DNA

Concordia panelists discuss the ethics of gene editing via CRISPR technology

Experts in the social and natural sciences gathered at Loyola campus last Wednesday to kick off Concordia’s Beyond Disciplines discussion series with a talk on the ethics of editing genes with Clustered Regularly-Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) technology.
CRISPR technology functions via natural bacterial immune system reactions. Some bacteria fight infections by releasing enzymes that cut DNA from infectious phage and incorporate it into its own genome to fight future infections.The talk featured five Concordia professors and one undergraduate from the departments of biology, philosophy and political science. Panelists discussed CRISPR technology, which now allows scientists to edit embryonic and stem cell genes cheaply and with specificity. Journalism professor David Secko hosted the talk.

With CRISPR technology, scientists can clone the cutting enzymes and incorporate them with designed matching sequences, giving the module instructions to go and cut DNA at a specific site. Donor DNA can be added, with overlapping sequences at the target site, to introduce mutations during DNA reparation.

CRISPR’s potential uses are diverse. “My field uses the power of this technique to edit model organisms to help us understand how specific genes contribute to crucial cell physiological mechanisms,” said Alisa Piekny, associate professor of biology at Concordia.

Professor of biology Vincent Martin spoke about CRISPR’s potential as a tool for uncovering genetic causes of diseases, rather than curing them. At this point, he said, “the solution doesn’t have to be CRISPR.”

But some speakers explained ethical dilemmas would arise with CRISPR’s eventual use on humans. What started as a scientific tool could lead down a slippery slope to “designer babies” and organisms that lack agency with regard to genetic development.

Associate professor of philosophy, Matthew Barker, explained all genes exist somewhere between “harmfulness” and “harmlessness.” But there is little consensus on where most genes fall and which can be edited.

While most agree fatal illnesses should be cured, many disagree on whether disabilities like low intelligence or deafness affect wellbeing enough to warrant edits, said Barker. Some deaf parents opposing CRISPR argue removing deafness from kids may negatively affect their wellbeing by impairing their ability to connect with their parents.

David Morris, Concordia’s philosophy chair, said CRISPR’s specificity may help end dissent, but issues of organisms’ genetic agency remain. By editing an organism’s genes, you change it’s future in a definite way. Doing so solidifies its future, which removes what Morris called “genetic agency” in an individual and on an evolutionary scale, reducing the ways in which the organism can naturally develop.

“We are living beings woven into complex relationships with other living beings around us,” said Morris. “CRISPR presents a sudden jump in our ability to modify living beings and these relationships. Our track record of interventions in our biosphere is not good.”

With China and Britain green-lighting human embryo modifications with CRISPR, Piekny warned Canadian policy has to keep up. “[People] should realize the importance of keeping our policy up-to-date, so that the ethics and science are considered together,” she said.

“How does the government and society reconcile that need for scientific progress and for reaping the economic benefits, with claims being made by civil society that these technologies are potentially detrimental to their communities?” asked associate professor of political science, Francesca Scala.

According to Scala, discussions are “a way of bringing in citizens and empowering them to exercise their own scientific citizenship.”

A second Beyond Disciplines event is scheduled for March at Concordia. This talk will focus on the role storytelling and narratives play in research. The exact date is to be confirmed.

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