Biomolecular Technology Evolves, Ethical Questions Arise

By Erin Matheson ‘18
Science Columnist

Bioethics is an ever evolving field, with new technological advances comes new questions. It has just been 22 years since James Watson, Francis Crick, and Rosalind Franklin discovered what DNA was — deoxyribonucleic acid, four different structures called bases stuck to a backbone of sugar and phosphate, in sequences thousands of bases long. DNA is what genes are made of, and genes are the basis of heredity. Now, the genetic CRISPR-Cas9 system is all the buzz in the scientific world.  By using the CRISPR-Cas9 system, researchers are able to slice the genome (genetic information) in human cells at specifically targeted genes.  Since the introduction of the technique in 2012, the genome of almost any organism can be altered easier and faster than ever before.

There are two chief ingredients in the CRISPR–Cas9 system: a Cas9 enzyme that snips through DNA like a pair of molecular scissors, and a small RNA molecule that directs the scissors to a specific sequence of DNA to make the cut. The cell’s native DNA repair machinery generally mends the cut. This potential was realized in 2012 by the Doudna and Charpentier labs.  Fellow researchers have taken flight since the original discovery.  There are now many different techniques implementing the CRISPR-Cas9 system.

Because of the amazing selectivity of the CRISPR technique, the possibility for treating diseases or altering human embryos--or creating ‘designer babies’--is more than a storyline for a sci-fi movie.  In the past, science has gone out of control (see Nuremberg, Tuskegee, and the human radiation experiments). If the ability to reorder and replace genes gets into the wrong hands there could be devastating consequences. This fear is constant in the scientific community.

 The new technological advances such as CRISPR poses questions about the regulations and its usage.  Should we be able to eliminate diseases for future populations? Are we playing ‘God’?  Who gets to make the decisions?  Parents? Doctors? Politicians?  Should we do it for the benefit of public health?  Are there any correct answers?

There are so many complex bioethics questions that there are courses exploring the problems in detail around the Claremont Consortium and in the United States. These courses are preparing students--future doctors and politicians--for problem solving that will have to occur sooner rather than later with the development of the CRISPR techniques.  Broad education on bioethics to people from all different disciplines is necessary. These issues will have a huge impact on every citizen in the future.  As fast as biomolecular technology develops, the ethical questions will arise. What will we future citizens decide?