Bioethics News

Genome editing CRISPR-Cas9. Biomedical and ethical considerations

Since the emergence in 2012 of the genome editing technique known as CRISPR-Cas9 [1], its use has rapidly expanded, as reflected in a notable increase in the number of publications, patented applications and funding awarded for this research area within a short period of time. A very comprehensive report has recently been published in international science journal Nature, explaining the trajectory of CRISPR-Cas9 and the different fields of application of this technique [2], which we shall discuss in this report.

The technique consists of using an RNA fragment that has a dual function: On one hand, it acts as a guide to find the piece of DNA to be modified and binds to it, while on the other, it recruits a molecule whose function is to cut the DNA, as if it were scissors (Cas9 enzyme). This enables the desired pieces of DNA to be cut, allowing the modification or removal of specific sequences. Unlike other gene-editing methods, CRISPR-Cas9 is cheap (around 30 US dollars per sequence), quick, and easy to use, and as such has been widely implemented in numerous laboratories worldwide. Furthermore, it can be applied in a large number of entities, and does not have to be limited to traditional model organisms. CRISPR pioneer Jennifer Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley, is compiling a list of CRISPR-altered creatures, which to date “has three dozen entries, including disease-causing parasites called trypanosomes and yeasts used to make biofuels” [2].

Nevertheless, while CRISPR appears to have much to offer, some scientists are concerned that the breakneck pace at which the technology is developing leaves little time for adequately assessing the ethical and safety issues that might arise as a result of these experiments.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.