Gene editing tech shows promise, but researchers ask "how far should we go?"
Scientists at Christiana Care Health System’s Gene Editing Institute have been engineering a pair of molecular scissors to help diagnose and assist in treatments for cancer.
But what exactly are these molecular scissors capable of?
If you make an error while typing a sentence into a word document, you’ll hit the backspace button a few times and retype the part of the sentence you need to fix.
Dr. Eric Kmiec, the director of Christiana Care’s Gene Editing Institute in the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center, says that’s what CRISPR — a pair of molecular scissors — can do to genes.
“There are enzymes we create called CRISPR-Cas9 that can identify the misspelled word — or in the case, the gene — excise it, and if we provide the right spelling or the right copy of the gene, it can incise it properly,” Kmiec said.
Scientists all over the world are experimenting with what these molecular scissors are capable of.
Christiana Care is working on using gene editing to help decrease a patient’s resistance to chemotherapy and improve their quality of life. Kmiec says he expects gene editing to go a long way in cancer treatment.
“A lot of times there’s a gene that’s behaving abnormally and causing the tumor to grow faster,” he said. “Previously, you had to try to kill that gene or its gene product by dumping lots of chemicals into a patient — chemotherapy. But if we can disable or destroy a gene causing a problem, a tumor can shrink on its own.”
Advancements like this have led some scientists to suggest gene editing is the technology of the century — with applications ranging from cancer treatment to fixing disease in embryos.
At the National Human Genome Research Institute in Maryland, genetics researcher Lawrence Brody is using CRISPR on zebra fish to try to understand how genetic variation in vitamin metabolism can affect a person’s health.
By injecting CRISPR into zebra fish eggs he said he can take a certain gene out of a few of the fish to study how the fish develops without this gene and what it means to a fish as it matures.
And between his own work with CRISPR and work happening around the world, Brody said it brings up the question, “how far should we go?”
“You could put CRISPR into a human egg and manipulate genes in a human egg that then would give rise to a person,” Brody said.
“Generally, the scientific community, society, almost across the world, say that’s something we should not do yet.”
Brody says genetic modifications like that are actually illegal in some countries. The U.S. government doesn’t even fund research into it here.
"Daily we see the power in this tech." -Eric Kmiec, Christiana Care's Gene Editing Institute
That is because any genetic change introduced into an egg could potentially produce a genetically altered person and affect future generations.
But when it comes to using CRISPR to improving a life, Brody says there’s little ethical controversy there.
Kmiec agrees, and says that’s why the Gene Editing Institute has drawn a line. Christiana Care does not work on fertilized embryos, sperm or egg.
“Daily we see the power in this tech and it reminds us to think carefully about where this can go,” he said.
Kmiec had an idea for one new direction when he found old CRISPR prototypes in a Christiana Care freezer: Why not teach gene editing to students?
He worked with Delaware Technical Community College to engineer a gene editing curriculum, which recently completed its first year. Two weeks ago, officials celebrated the milestone at DelTech, where Christiana Care’s President and Chief Executive Officer Janice Nevin addressed the students and told them they have gained skills that will help them enter new technology fields.
“You will have the opportunity to touch lives…make a difference in health and quality of life,” Nevin said. “The future is now.”
Lena Ravenelle was among the students. On the day of the celebration — which was also one of the last days of classes, she and classmate Darwin Gibbons examined E. coli cells.
She says the class offered tremendous insight into the science behind CRISPR and the ethical questions it raises.
“We got into a discussion about people saying I want a designer baby with blonde hair and blue eyes and it gets into that whole discussion,” Ravenelle said. “I think with a body of people who can come together and say ‘these are the rules’ [CRISPR] will definitely have the potential to save peoples lives.”
A technology with life-saving potential — but not without risks.