Gene Editing: A Powerful Tool That Should Be Used Wisely

November 12, 2018
Debu Tripathy, M.D.

The ability to rewrite the (genetic) code in a purposeful way and redirect biology is a milestone that few might have believed could be done routinely in any kind of cell.

DNA IS THE CODE of life that governs the essence of every organism and drives many disease states, including cancer. Deciphering the language of the genome and the actual nucleotide sequence, using the genetic alphabet (A, C, T and G) for every gene, was a massive technological feat completed at the turn of the millennium.

However, the ability to rewrite the code in a purposeful way and redirect biology is a milestone that few might have believed could be done routinely in any kind of cell, including germ cells that can propagate a new order of life in all future progeny.

The ability to make “transgenic” mice and genetically modify crop seeds for heartier produce has been with us for some time, generating considerable controversy along the way. However, newer technology known as CRISPR allows for more systematic and comprehensive genetic alterations — essentially, “sculpting” the genome without having to splice it into a different location. In some countries, scientists plan to move ahead with this technology to treat genetic diseases — not cancer, but myriad other debilitating inherited syndromes.

Although normal cells are more difficult to “gene edit” compared with tumor cells, researchers recently discovered that inactivating the tumor suppressor gene p53 can facilitate this but also make cells more vulnerable to malignant transformation. These findings highlight CRISPR’s amazing potential for

managing and even curing some diseases, as well as furthering our understanding of what drives, and may cure, cancer. But they also reveal that the

converse of these powerful tools is unintended harm — the opening of a Pandora’s box that may have repercussions for generations.

Of course, one can apply this logic (and fear) to any transformative movement, such as the internet and social media. The best solution is to have an educated and aware public that participates in the development of new science and collectively steers it toward enlightenment and away from darkness.

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