CRISPR. Not the name of your favourite chips.

Genetic engineering is reaching a stage where modern science is rivalling science fiction. The ability to genetically redesign plants, animals and even humans for optimal functionality is on the horizon. Genetically modified organisms have been in existence since 1982 and are an area of concern among the wider community. These early modifications took years of research and thousands in funding, however, the ability to perfectly edit parts of a genome in a simple, cost-effective and quick manner has arrived, CRISPR-Cas9 technology. This technology consists of a targeting molecule and a cutting molecule.

1) The cutting molecule is an enzyme called CRISPR Associated Protein 9 (Cas9). It can cut double stranded DNA (allowing for additional techniques to be used to add, modify or remove genes).

2) The targeting molecule is called the guide RNA (gRNA), and is a designed RNA molecule that has complementarity to the target gene. The gRNA ‘guides’ the Cas9 enzyme to the exact location where DNA needs to be cut in the genome.

Think of a Formula One car cutting a corner at incredible speeds with perfect accuracy, marry that with the beauty and elegance of a symphony, sprinkle a bit of science on top, and the CRISPR-Cas9 technology is born.

CRISPR has tremendous future implications for humans. For example, scientists have successfully been able to use CRISPR–Cas9 for in vivo gene therapy in mice. This involved removing the culprit mutation in the ‘Duchenne muscular dystrophy’ gene to partially restore muscular functions. CRISPR-Cas9 has even been used to decrease the risk of complications after pig to human heart transplants, by removing endogenous pig viruses from their genome. With continued research into these therapies, coupled with an accelerated rate in scientific endeavour, it is only a matter of time until we see this genetic technology improving the lives of humans.

Can we improve the life of humans, even before they are even born?
CRISPR can unlock the true potential of genetic engineering, but with great power comes great responsibility (no, spider-man was not a product of CRISPR, it was a gene mutation caused by a radioactive mutagen. Duh). There is the ethical discussion of whether this technology should be used to create ‘designer babies’, where we choose the desirable characteristics of our unborn child at an embryo stage. This could create an industry where couples could choose the height, eye or skin colour of their child just like they choose what piece of clothing they want looking at a model in a magazine. The debate isn’t just limited to ethical issues, disputes have arisen over who owns the CRISPR-Cas9 technology. Teams at MIT and UC Berkeley are both making claims, and whoever holds the patent may control the future of gene editing in their hands.

Scientists around the world are perfecting this technology and making it safe for human applications, which may be sooner than expected. Researchers at the Sichuan University in Chengdu, China, have administered cells with genes edited using CRISPR-Cas9 into a human patient with aggressive lung cancer. Scientists in the US have edited human embryos using CRISPR for the first time. Once again, there are ethical issues with these genetic modification developments; not only of the ‘designer babies’ but also for the unknown effects that may take place in editing germ line cells in future generations.

It is an exciting time to be involved in biological sciences, because this technology has the power to eliminate many diseases and make a positive difference for humans. It will unite scientists around the world and allow them to solve problems, such as developing genetically modified politicians who understand climate change (we can all dream, right?). Most importantly CRISPR will allow for the dawn of a new era in science.

Ahmad Zeeshan Siddiqui