By Dr. Mercola
In his 1932 sci-fi novel "Brave New World," Aldous Huxley explored what life might be like in AD 2540 — a world in which children are born in government owned baby hatcheries.
In his world, human freedom is virtually non-existent, as each individual is genetically engineered and psychologically conditioned to fulfill a specific role within one of the five societal classes.
Over 500 years before his prediction, we're already seeing the germination of some of his projections.
The technical development that is taking medicine by storm is CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeat) — a gene editing tool that has the most profound potential to change the health world as we know it that I have ever encountered.
A layman's explanation of the technology and its potential ramifications is presented in the video above. In the past, talk about altering the human genome was relegated to philosophical discussions; now it's becoming a reality. A "Brave New World" indeed!
Drug Companies Race to Develop Gene Editing Drugs
According to MIT Technology Review,1 the pharmaceutical industry is "doubling down" on CRISPR for novel drug development. CRISPR Therapeutics has entered a joint venture with Bayer to create drugs for blood disorders and blindness using this gene editing technology.
Two other startups aiming to put CRISPR technology to use in drug development are Editas Medicine and Intellia Therapeutics. According to the featured article, "dealings over the past year have revealed broad disease areas where drugmakers see opportunities for applying the new tool."
At present, any therapy based on CRISPR technology would have to involve three steps: Remove cells from your body; alter the DNA, and then reintroduce the cells into your body.
CRISPR hold the promise to transform the human species in ways yet unknown and it has quickly gone from being written about only in scientific journals to receiving global media attention. It is sometimes called the Microsoft Word of gene editing for its low cost and ease of use for researchers.
Specificity — The Ultimate Challenge of Genetic Modification
All three CRISPR startups are also working on technologies for editing the genome right inside your body, without having to take out and reinsert the cells.
This presents a far greater challenge, and while it would broaden the range of diseases that could be addressed, it may also be far more dangerous, with any number of potential side effects.
As noted in the featured article:
"'The ultimate need' of any of the players trying to make CRISPR drugs is for technologies that can increase CRISPR's specificity, so that it edits only the target DNA sequence ...
The basis of CRISPR technology is a biological system some bacteria use to remove unwanted viral DNA sequences ... One of the molecules that locates and cuts the DNA has evolved to be somewhat nonspecific so it can be flexible enough to address a range of different viruses...
Once the system is specific enough, there could be several ways to get it into the right cells, such as by using viral vectors or nanoparticles. Delivering it to the right tissue might be as simple as licensing a syringe for injecting into the eyeball, or a stent for delivering the drug to the heart ...
But none of the players trying to make CRISPR drugs have yet been able tackle all three challenges — delivering the drug to the tissue, the cells, and ultimately to the target sequence with the necessary specificity ..."
One Step Closer to 'Designer Babies'
The ISIS report makes it clear that CRISPR technology raises "unprecedented concern over safety and ethics." According to the report, the issue "came to a head" after a team of Chinese researchers used the technology to create the first genetically modified human embryos.
While CRISPR/Cas9 effectively cut the intended gene target, it also affected other non-target sites, and in the end, "untoward mutations" were created. According to the researchers:
"Taken together, our work highlights the pressing need to further improve the fidelity and specificity of the CRISPR/Cas9 platform, a prerequisite for any clinical applications of CRISPR/Cas9-mediated editing."
There's no doubt that gene editing technology is here to stay (unless something truly devastating cuts its popularity short). It certainly has the potential to do good, but it also has the potential to be misused and abused — especially since it's far cheaper than any previous methods.
For better or worse, medicine and reproductive technology is about to take a massive leap; we're quickly entering an era where the human genome can be tinkered with for any number of reasons. Unfortunately, if genetically engineered foods are any indication, such a leap may turn out to be just another factor in our own undoing.
If this topic interests you, you can learn more about the history of this revolutionary technology in a paper9 published in the journal Cell earlier this month. A commentary10 on the paper can also be found on the science blog Genotopia.