S1E9 - CRISPR DNA Hacking - Your Designer Baby

This week we are going to do a deep dive into DNA Hacking (CRISPR), how its done and how it will change our perception of reality and how we behave as human beings.

I’ve been thinking about this topic and researching for quite some time now and considering that CRISPR human trials just became approved in the United States, this felt like the right time.

So! Let’s jump right in.

One of my favorite movies of all time is Gattaca – a sci-fi Drama thriller staring Ethan Hawke made in 1997. The plot of the movie as written on IMDB is as follows:

“In the not-too-distant future, a less-than-perfect man wants to travel to the stars. Society has categorized Vincent Freeman as less than suitable given his genetic make-up and he has become one of the underclasses of humans that are only useful for menial jobs. To move ahead, he assumes the identity of Jerome Morrow, a perfect genetic specimen who is a paraplegic as a result of a car accident. With professional advice, Vincent learns to deceive DNA and urine sample testing. Just when he is finally scheduled for a space mission, his program director is killed and the police begin an investigation, jeopardizing his secret”

Gattaca shows us a world where gene editing has become the norm, separating those who are genetically superior, from those who are not genetically enhanced.

Now, if you’ve never watched Gattaca, or heard of CRISPR/DNA Hacking let me break it down real quick.

CRISPR is an acronym for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats a set of DNA sequences found within genomes or organisms like bacteria and archaea.

These short sequences are taken from small DNA fragments, or sections of viruses that once infected the bacteria. Scientists use these sequences to detect and destroy DNA from similar bacteria that infect people or animals.

You may have also heard of CRISPR-cas9 and this is basically an enzyme that uses CRISPR sequences.

So from that description we can move forward with the idea that the intention behind CRISPR is for scientists to develop a way to detect certain sections of DNA and be able to  change the DNA to remove any harmful parts then ideally replace the section with an enhancement that would make the DNA better in some way.

This all sounds amazing, and the possible uses for CRISPR are pretty incredible!

Crispr was first described in 1987 by a researcher Yoshizumi Ishino at Osaka University while studying E.Coli. In 1993 researchers in the Netherlands published two articles about their use of CRISPR like technology. By 2002 more and more Universities, and researchers world wide were conducting research focused on CRISPR and the possible applications. But it wasn’t until a Chinese scientist used CRISPR created a world wide controversy

An article on ScienceMag.org covered the moment, “On the eve of an international summit here on genome editing, a Chinese researcher has shocked many by claiming to have altered the genomes of twin baby girls born this month in a way that will pass the modification on to future generations.  The alteration is intended to make the children’s cells resistant to infection by HIV, says the scientist, He Jiankui of the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China.”

Soon millions of people realized that a new frontier was fast approaching, raising some serious ethical questions.

HE claimed that he altered the embryos of seven couples during fertility treatments. In each of the seven cases, the father was HIV positive, while the mothers were all HIV negative. His goal was to introduce a genetic variation which would make it difficult for HIV to infect the children.

HE did this by using the CRISPR-cas9 gene editing technique.

You may be wondering, what the problem is in this situation.

Well due to the lack of research into the consequences of genetically altering embryos, no body really knows what could happen to these children in the future. By using CRISPR HE made it so that the changes he made would now be hereditary, meaning these children once born and matured, would be passing along genes that were never really a part of their genetic make up before the alteration. And since this has never been done before, no one truly knows how the new DNA would change as the children grew or how it would show up 2 or 3 generations down the line of children.

We don’t know whether these changes would make the children more susceptible to other diseases or infections in the future.

DNA is extremely complicated, and scientists are still discovering new interactions that contribute to all aspects of our health. It is currently impossible to accurately predict how many other things one small change can affect.

Additionally, scientists began questioning whether the gene editing was even necessary considering the fathers wouldn’t have infected the children with HIV and there are currently a multitude of ways to prevent being infected that are accessible and pose less of a lifelong risk.

In the same article Julian Savulescu, an ethicist at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, said in a statement released by the U.K. Science Media Centre. “This experiment exposes healthy normal children to risks of gene editing for no real necessary benefit,”

What happens if 20 years from now these children begin having diseases that we don’t have treatments for?

The problem was, HE decided to implant the embryos which later resulted in the birth of twin girls. The first designer babies born to mankind. Additionally, HE did the experiment without notifying anyone, we aren’t even sure if he received the consent of the parents to proceed.

After the outrage caused by He’s research, other scientists who may have assisted came under fire. Three Stanford faculty members who may have assisted HE with his research were investigated for violating government bans, committing fraud and “acting in a manner to purse fame and gain.

Stanford eventually found no evidence against the three and cleared their names just this month April 2019

In 2018 when this story came out, gene editing was allowed in the united states under strict guidelines, but the embryos were required to immediately be destroyed within a few days of the editing.

But like in the movie Gattaca, what does the future look like for us?

One of my biggest worries is how designer babies will shift our reality. Particularly when it comes to the separation between those who can afford this technology and those who can’t.

The movie explores how civilization changes to allow more privileged and opportunity to those genetically enhanced individuals while criminalizing and discriminating against individuals who are considered inferior.

We already have this problem in the world. There’s discrimination based on ability, race, gender, class, etc. Do we really want to add to the divide by designing humans who are actually genetically superior?

In my opinion, having scientific data that proves an individual is more capable than another  because their parents were able to create them with specific traits like more muscle mass, or better looking, or even changing their intellect would be detrimental to the tribe we are working so hard to create.

For those who can’t afford to pay for a designer baby, would the right to having normal children be taken away?

For those who don’t want to genetically modify their offspring, would we be punished by laws in the future? Would not modifying our children be classified as a form of neglect?

Would our children have lower paying jobs, less opportunities or resources?

Just by looking at the state of our nation currently, It’s highly likely that the answer to some or even all of these questions would be a resounding yes in the future if we remain on this trajectory.

Another consequence I’m concerned about is the ability for Biomedical warfare developed for use against individuals. Once designer babies become a thing, it will be easier for terrorists to create diseases or infections that target either people who have been genetically modified, or those that lack the enhancements. This could result in wars where biomedical terrorism is used for the genocides of large groups of people.

 In 2016, Bill Gates remarked that "the next epidemic could originate on the computer screen of a terrorist intent on using genetic engineering to create a synthetic version of the smallpox virus". 

And in July 2017, John Sotos, of Intel Health & Life Sciences, stated that gene editing research could "open up the potential for bioweapons of unimaginable destructive potential".

When designing anything, whether its software, or a person. Humans are prone to make mistakes. These mistakes create loop holes for hackers, and in the case of human life, the creation of new diseases and infections that sneak by these loops holes will be catastrophic to say the least.

While there are thousands of reasons to be concerned about genetically modifying humans. There are just as many reasons for us to be excited for this.

Quite recently Human Trials for CRISPR use have been approved in the United states. While these trials are not on changing embryos and actually implanting them, the 9 total trials are trying to find ways to cure existing diseases in humans.

Scientists are using CRISPR to find ways to cure things like Sickle Cell, Lung Disease, and improving early detection of Ovarian Cancer.

These are all things that require thinking out of box to get us to a cure and all have a significant benefit to all of us.

We can now begin picturing a world where we no longer have to lose loved ones to cancer or suffer years of Lupus treatments. CRISPR may make It possible for us to have longer healthier lives, but as usual, the regulations that surround CRISPR and any future uses of the technology will have to be carefully crafted.

Ethical guidelines and governing bodies will need to be created to lead us into this new frontier.

I’m wondering what you all think about CRISPR. Would you have a designer baby?