Gene editing – the next evolutionary step?

Gene editing might be one of the biggest ethical challenges of upcoming generations. The reality is, genetically modified babies are already being born. Samuel H. Sternberg, one of the creators of a breakthrough gene-editing technology CRISPR, is coming to Prague to talk about the topic.

Dogs, tomatoes, now us

Humanity has been editing genes for some time now. It took us hundreds of years of breeding to create dogs from wolves. Numbers of fruits and vegetables we eat have been modified as well, either by breeding or GMO. Now it looks like humans themselves are the next target for gene editing. With CRISPR, gene editing can now be done in a matter of weeks and for a fraction of the original price.

Samuel H Sternberg was a part of the team, that has discovered CRISPR. They found out that by using the bacterial immune system and a special protein called CAS9 they could locate a precise DNA string and replace it with something else. The protein can scan the inside of a bacteria, comparing every part of DNA in search of a virus intruder. When it finds the virus DNA, it cuts it out to protect the bacteria. Important thing is, that CAS9 is extremely precise, programmable, and it works for every type of cell.

Cancer cure has never been closer

The usages of CRISPR are literally endless. For start, any genetic disease could potentially be cured by it – hemophilia, Huntington’s disease, color blindness, or cancer. And it’s already happening, both China and the USA have been running therapy trials on cancer patients since 2016. Treating cancer for our grandchildren might be just as simple as taking a shot of your own modified cells.

When it comes to diseases passed on by generations, they could be stopped by editing the human embryo. China has already been a birthplace of at least 3 modified babies, the first two in a highly controversial case of so-called CRISPR twins. A door has been opened that can’t be closed anymore.

The next evolutionary step

If you can make your baby immune to Alzheimer’s, why not also give them an enhanced metabolism? Why not throw in perfect eyesight as well? And full hair, muscular body, or better brain? CRISPR raises an ethical challenge for sure, but it’s a challenge worth overcoming. It could even potentially slow down the aging process, making our lives way longer. And that could enable us to space travel, reaching another evolutionary step.

CRISPR has to be used very carefully though. Even his creators, Jennifer Doudna and Samuel H. Sternberg, wrote a book (A Crack in Creation) warning the humanity of its dangers.

The slightest change to our DNA might have unforeseeable consequences. Every change must be thoroughly studied and tested. And we have to make sure CRISPR doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.

Learn more about genetic engineering, its opportunities and challenges directly from one of CRISPR’s creators, Samuel H. Sternberg at Future Port Prague 2019. Sam will give a keynote at Future Port’s business conference and you can also meet him in person at the networking dinner. The conference will be a place to discuss many more topics, take a look at some of them here.