When President Clinton and Prime Minister Tony Blair jointly announced in June 2000 the completion of the first draft of the human genome, i.e. the DNA library that determines how our bodily cells are made and/or replaced in particular ways, the media heralded it as the first major step to develop new ways to cure and prevent diseases; its 3 billion U$ cost was largely paid with public funding. During the first decade of the new century, private companies used that information to design new tests for genetic diseases like Down’s syndrome.
The latest test for Down’s syndrome measures small amounts of fetal DNA in the mother’s bloodstream, which has replaced the need for amniocentesis. Couples anxious to find out the possibility of that condition can now avoid the dangers of invasive procedures, with the real risk of a miscarriage; the increased discovery of the trait will certainly increase the rate of abortions. Genetic testing has become a novel area of consumption for wealthy classes as companies have designed easy to use direct-to-consumer testing kits. The interpretation of the results can be difficult to interpret without professional advice; moreover the use of different criteria and databases by companies might yield contradictory, perplexing results for the same medical condition.
The humongous amount of genetic information of the populations is being collected and stored by public and private entities with various missions. The “Genetic Information Non-discrimination act” of 2008 made it illegal for American insurance companies that provide health care services to base their acceptance protocols on this information but surprisingly enough the same does not apply to life insurance and long-term care—a big loophole.
However there is an even bigger potential threat to Humankind and life in our planet that has been created in the last few years: the CRISPR technique. Jennifer Doudna and Samuel H. Sternberg, researchers at the University of California at Berkeley, recently published a book about the use of gene editing in modern medicine and the serious ethical questions that it arises. The advent of gene editing came with the discovery in the 1980s of parts of microbial genomes that were consistently replicated in the DNA sequences. They were called “clustered regularly interspersed short palindrome repeats” or CRISPR and scientists found out that they can activate certain proteins called CRISPR-associated or CAS that can attack and annul certain DNA. The microbe can detect an invasion of extraneous DNA and get rid of it.
These scientific discoveries paved the way for the design of CRISPR that can alter and control the DNA of living beings, including humans. However there are still some technical limitations to the complexity of the DNA that can be introduced in cells to change their genetic material. Eventually the technique will be refined with the grave potential of a biological weapon. At present scientists from UCLA and the Broad Institute are fighting in court about the ownership of the patents needed to commercialize this product.
Doudna et al. are adamantly opposed to the use of CRISPR to alter the genetic components of human beings, akin to the eugenics of Nazi Germany. But there is a fine line between radical alteration and enhancement of body features as the controversial use of Botulinum toxin has shown us lately. These authors also believe that the greatest controversy at the present time is the use of CRISPR to design “gene drives”—the artificial bits of DNA used to control pest like mosquitoes that transmit communicable diseases. Even though there is a Public Health need to eradicate the Anopheles mosquito that transmit malaria in African nations, killing thousands every year, there is not a proper understanding of the ecological consequences of this action. Eventually the mosquito might also mutate to develop its drives-resistance.
There is not a global consensus as to how these gene-drives should be used amongst the nations and private institutions, which has created a legal void. We must discuss these controversies in our communities as their effects will eventually reach all of us in the next few decades, whether we like it or not. The future is knocking at our door.
What do you think? Please tell us.
Don’t leave me alone.