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Wednesday / March 29.

Gene editing: Human playing God?

By Garima Agarwal

Long before our time, in 1796, Edward Jenner came up with the idea of immunisation – or, the introduction of the infectious virus in the body to stimulate the immune response and hence develop an adaptive immunity to the virus. Louis Pasteur furthered this process and it became widely referred to as vaccination.

A few decades later, in 1962, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created a ‘superhero’ named Spiderman. As a genetically mutated spider bites the main character, he rendered with superpowers that he uses for societal good. We call them ‘superpowers’ because he was able to do things beyond our current capabilities to perform.

But, what if just for a moment, based on the principles of Edward Jenner and Louis Pasteur, we as ordinary humans were able to attain powers that Marvel protagonists always boasted of?

What is CRISPR/Cas9?

If we are able to isolate these repetitive patterns, we would be able to save ourselves from any disease on the planet.

CRISPR or Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats refers to a specific pattern which is repeated over and over in a DNA. This pattern usually comes from an immunogen and becomes a part of the DNA as a defence mechanism. It’s a database of sorts. And, the body’s immunity refers to it should there be an attack. If we are able to isolate these repetitive patterns, we would be able to save ourselves from any disease on the planet. More importantly, we could modify and mutate the genes to prevent any disease from occurring.

That’s where Cas9 is relevant. Cas9 or CRISPR-associated proteins, precisely point out at the section of the DNA which needs to be modified or eliminated. Together CRISPR and Cas9 have the ability to cut and paste any part of the genome anywhere in the body. This makes this technology the most exciting and terrifying feat of advanced human genomics.

Human to becoming super human

Scientists are working day and night to make life better for the ordinary human being. | Image courtesy: Visual Hunt

Have humans unlocked immortality?

What this means for the human race is something of a miracle. It would give us the ability to triumph any genetic disease, make our immune systems heavily armoured, and kill epidemics on their onset. Organ transplantation would become easier – now that custom organs can be cultivated. Humans do not need to get sick with terminal diseases. In fact, since this technology is species agnostic, we need not ward off mosquitoes anymore. We could simply alter their genes to not carry malaria.

Moreover, we can alter whoever we want, whenever we want.

Though this technology promises a bucketful of comforting benefits, there’s the other side of the coin which is equally uncomfortable. If we can alter whatever we do not like, does that mean we could play with eugenics? Genes cause sickness, old age, and carbon degeneration. Can we stop or reverse everything? Does this mean we have finally discovered the elusive formula to immortality? In that case, we could simply edit the genes responsible for macular degeneration. 600 years of age would become a possibility for a human whose average lifespan is roughly 70 years.

All that glitters is not gold?

According to Darwin, evolution has its own pace.  Are we in a position where we can skip a few ages altogether and become super evolved species before our time?

With this technology, we can also change the characteristics of our future generations, popularly called ‘designer babies’. This, however, is highly debatable on ethical grounds. But, it is not very different from what happened when human cloning first came out. Do we have the rights to tamper with the unborn? According to Darwin, evolution has its own pace.  Are we in a position where we can skip a few ages altogether and become super evolved species before our time? Can we manufacture, and raise human armies with predefined characteristics, or do we need ethics to play a role in that too? On top of that, we can acquire any ability possessed by any of the species on the planet. So we can run like a leopard, and swim like a fish, or sell stocks like Bradley Cooper in ‘Limitless’, but without the NZT-48.

Bioterrorism is a reality we need to face before we step into the next century. We cannot help but wonder just how important a role gene editing will play in it.

After economic warfare, the next age would be that of biological. Bioterrorism is a reality we need to face before we step into the next century. We cannot help but wonder just how important a role gene editing will play in it. Can genetically engineered virus cause artificial epidemics? What if these gene alterations could be mustered topically? All of these scenarios are hypothetical. But, unlike now, a few years ago we did not know we could do a brain transplant in a functional human body.

Watch where you step

What CRISPR/Cas9 promises to deliver is immense. This is one of those rare moments in the history of the human race where we do not know if progress would necessarily be in moving forward.

Maybe Stephen Hawking is right. Human progress could lead to its own destruction. However, the good news is that we do not have to wait for too long to find out.

The reality of its commercial use is still far away. But a time would come soon when Marvel would not hold the intellectual property over human mutations anymore. To say the very least, that is deeply unsettling.


Garima Agarwal is currently working on launching a healthcare venture. She has worked with Sequoia Capital and India Value Fund Advisors previously.
Featured image courtesy: Visual Hunt
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