Story of crispy CRISPR!

Have you heard about designer babies recently in news? It is exactly what it is named – you can design your baby with the desired trait you want and more recently, this is a big debate in the scientific community.

CRISPR is a magical discovery that occurred somewhere in 1987 and since then the theory behind its mechanism has been contributed, discussed and published by various scientists all over the globe. CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) and Cas (CRISPR associated system; a group of proteins that work around CRISPR) are found in many single cell organisms (like bacteria) as an adaptive immune system (a system that protects an organism from infection/diseases). When a foreign organism like virus invades a bacterium, Cas helps recognize a small strand of its genetic material and adds it to the CRISPR chain. When the invader replicates to grow and infect the bacterium, CRISPR indicates another set of Cas proteins to recognize this small strand of foreign genetic material and cut the genetic material right at the same place and destroy them. This does sound easy and simple but its discovery and understanding took decades, as each bacterium had a different strength of CRISPR/Cas system, which was designed according to the type of invaders they encounter.

Once this mechanism was out, it was realized by some scientists that if they can design CRISPR/Cas system to recognize faulty mutations in genes, it can very well cut and replace it with the correct gene; in short, gene editing/therapy. Tons of experiments are being conducted on organisms, and animal models, leading to loads of CRISPR libraries. By libraries, I do not mean books. Gene libraries are designed genes for a particular well-known mutation-related disease, that can be shared and distributed between scientists to use in research for therapy and drug-action. As long as it was limited to animals and organisms, it was all ok. It was good for research but the medical field was not much bothered because it was a far-off dream to apply it in humans.

However, a group of scientists in Oregon recently designed human embryos in which they replaced faulty gene copy that causes life-threatening disease (Link1; Link2). They are successful in getting 70% of those embryos with corrected gene ready for implantation (IVF technique). They are the first success story in attempting to correct a defective gene in human embryos. As it is already hinted above, there is the war of words surrounding the scientific, ethical and legal issues with respect to applying this clinically on humans. Rightly so, it does sound like a fraught with danger. I would like to emphasize this is nowhere close to designing babies like Einstein or Edison. This is just a potential and hopefully, a LOT of thought goes into taking the extreme step of creating one.

Genetic engineering definitely is an optimistic scientific advancement, but keeping in mind, its potential to exploit, we need to put unbreakable iron bars of ethics and morals around it. A good read related to this – Link3!

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