For those of us who don’t follow science news, the CRISPR/Cas9 system has been the recent buzz topic in research and ethical debates. Derived from a defense mechanism in bacteria, CRISPR is a system that allows for experiments that “cut out” certain parts of DNA and replace them with new sequences, which can be synthesized ahead of time in the lab. CRISPR is a breakthrough not only because of its efficiency, but because of its specificity – instead of having to culture a line of cells or mice over a series of generations with a specific mutation, CRISPR can go to the target gene in essentially one go.
(This article is a pretty good overview of how CRISPR works, for those who are interested: http://gizmodo.com/everything-you-need-to-know-about-crispr-the-new-tool-1702114381 )
Gene editing has a very broad variety of applications, as studies involving DNA can apply to almost any model system, from microbes to mice to humans. Most of the recent debate, including what is discussed in this article, has surrounded humans and the potential and ethicality of gene editing derived therapies. It comes down to the Gattaca questions of cure and the eugenic/medical model.
Gene editing therapies do have the potential to help people with genetic conditions that cause severe pain and/or are terminal. As the article points out, however, these people and others potentially affected by new therapies are not being included in the conversations surrounding CRISPR and its derivatives. Scientific research unsurprisingly tends to lean towards or be in outright support of the medical model. In my own time reading current various cell biology and clinical research, I’ve seen outdated language such as the r-slur still being used in titles of recent research journal articles. The scientific community needs to be listening to disabled people before they decide what kind of research serves their “best interests.”
The article also pointed out that the conversations and resulting therapies are also being limited geographically. Debates primarily discuss effects of CRISPR therapies on upper class white people who live in the US or Europe, despite the potential use for gene editing therapies for patients in poor areas of the world. For example, CRISPR could be used to change the genomes of populations of mosquitos carrying malaria, which according to the cdc is found in highest transmission rate in sub-saharan Africa and parts of Oceania.