Gene editing has become real
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Usually, posts on here don’t talk about science, I know. At least not about natural sciences. (I’m not even sure that I would click on one, although I am a medical student). But recently, I’ve stumbled upon a topic that has started troubling me a lot, and I think it is time to talk about it.
At my university there is this biochemistry professor, who always has a smirk on his lips and wears different coloured shirts, one day it’s a yellow one, the next day it is lilac. He likes to make jokes and has a handwriting that is sometimes impossible to decipher.
A few weeks ago he came into the lecture and said that we should all put away pen and paper. He’d lecture about a topic today that wasn’t part of our exams, yet he felt was of utter importance for us, as future doctors and as people part of a society. And he put up a PowerPoint presentation with a title that said: CRISPR/Cas.
And that is what I want to talk about.
In a nutshell, CRISPR/Cas (you pronounce it as it is written) is a technique that can edit our DNA. It cuts out mistakes that render us ill, and puts in place another “healthy” piece. It can silence or activate genes. It can destroy DNA and through it even entire cells. It can, once it is used on humans, heal people who have severe illnesses like cystic fibrosis or muscle dystrophy, but also give our children blue instead of green eyes, longer legs and a calmer character, if desired. Shortly, with CRISPR/Cas we can engineer ourselves.
So far, this technique has only been tried out on animals. And so far, it has worked 100% - no mistakes have been made. At the moment it is likely that it will work on us, too.
If used to treat illnesses, CRISPR/Cas is a miracle. With it we might be able to put an end to cancer! We could fight viruses and even prolong life.
The problem that I see with this opportunity is that the line between “illness” and “cosmetic problem”, the line between “a long life” and “a life worth living”, the line between “unfit for life” and “unfit for society” is often impossible to draw. Who will tell us when we should use this CRISPR/Cas and when not?
I believe that what makes us human is our diversity and our imperfections. Life often gets meaning only through other people, when we share experiences and work together on something that one of us couldn’t do on his own. I believe that ups and downs in life are, in part, what make it worthy. I could go as far as to claim that a “perfect” human might not have a “perfect” life or encounter real meaning.
Who tells us how to use CRISPR/Cas? Who can draw a line and have everybody stick to it? Human beings are curious minds. When we look at our history we can see that we often don’t learn from our mistakes. It would be very hard to keep us from trying to better our genes. Even though we might know that it is dangerous, we would still do it.
At first, only the rich people could pay for gene editing, and they would likely make themselves even more powerful. Eventually, a great many people could have it, and make the gap between “gifted, advantaged and powerful” and “not so favoured” even bigger.
Of course I wonder what my job as a doctor will look like once the enzyme is started to be used. I doubt my job will look anything like I would want it to. I wonder if I would still be needed, or if the laboratories and computers will do my job of inspecting and treating patients (unless I work in surgery before robots take this section over, too).
Yet, the biggest question remains this: Should we be allowed to engineer ourselves?
If you have come this far in the article, thank you very much for taking the time to read it! I would be happy to see you leave your own thoughts in the comments :)
With my best wishes from Germany, Pia