CRISPR technology set to cure HIV, smallpox, and cholera, BRItv, Mary-Jane Mphahele

Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, or CRISPR for short forms part of a new ground-breaking gene-editing technology, known as CRISPR-Cas9. Many developments to CRISPR technology have occurred in recent years bringing unprecedented medical advancements as well as ethics debates.

CRISPR technology is being used to correct genetic mutations in specific areas of the human genome. The genome is an organism’s complete set of DNA, including all of the genes. The specific CRISPR tool of importance is CRISPR-Cas9, a genome-editing tool which can find genetic code and the Cas9 protein cuts the appropriate spot in a DNA sequence. After which, scientists can edit the genome by modifying, deleting, or inserting new sequences, similar to a cut and paste tool. The aim of the technique is to rid patients of inherited diseases. 

An example of gene editing comes from the removal of the CCR5 gene. The gene is required for HIV to enter human blood cells. This year, a team at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China successfully removed the CCR5 gene from twins, named Lulu and Nana. The experiment was meant to confirm the theory about CCR5’s role in diseases like HIV, smallpox, and cholera. However, an effect of the procedure may have been intellectual enhancement. 

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CRISPR technology set to cure HIV, smallpox, and cholera. BRItv, Mary-Jane Mphahele

There exists a link between CCR5 and cognition, which scientists have been aware of since 2016. The removal of the gene significantly increased the memory of mice. Now, teams of scientists from the United States and Israel say they have further evidence of this, stating that CCR5 suppresses synaptic connections and memories. The increase in intelligence has created an uproar within the international community due to anxieties around the creation of super-intelligent humans. 

The controversy surrounding the twins in China stems from the fact that there is a fine line between cosmetics and medicine, as seen from the CCR5 case. While the removal of CCR5 genes can lead to the prevention of disease and stroke recovery there is also the ability to remove it purely as a means of creating smarter people. This topic ties into ongoing debates around the ethics of genetic manipulation and ‘designer babies’. The idea of designer babies centers around being able to edit the features of your child before they are born. Features such as eye colour, body type, and intelligence can be genetically altered for the parent’s idea of a perfect person. 

Despite the ethical issues of CRISPR technology, there has been a multitude of patents issued around medical gene editing and projects undertaken by America and China to use the technology for cancer treatments, demonstrating a shift in the attitude towards the practice.