All-campus lecture explores genome editing
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The chemistry department and Science and Faith club partnered to host an interdisciplinary discussion on Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats genome editing, also known as CRISPR, on Wednesday. The panel featured professors from three departments: a biological perspective from Yi-Fan Lu, a theological perspective from Telford Work, and a philosophical perspective from Mark Nelson.
DNA sequences generally consist of four bases, commonly known as A, T, C, and G. A human being contains three billion base pairs, and nearly thirty trillion cells. Each cell contains the same amount of information and the DNA sequence is what makes up the cell, so in order to multiply the cell, a certain sequence is needed. Westmont Professor Yi-Fan Lu stated that the final “functional product” of the DNA sequence is protein. The DNA’s purpose is to pass down genetic information, as a template, and to maintain cell function. In the past, scientists lacked a realistic way to precisely change the DNA sequence in a cell. They faced certain obstacles such as precise editing, high cost, and extreme time consumption. This led to scientists formulating CRISPR.
CRISPR is an innovative way to precisely change the DNA sequence in a cell. The process is an engineered strategy to cut and replace DNA sequences in a laboratory. It is done by a bacteria called “immune system,” according to Professor Yi-Fan Lu. This means that scientists can remove the target cells, edit them in a lab, and then put them back. Scientists, however, currently lack the ability to massively and efficiently edit cells in the body.
CRISPR has introduced a platform into medicine targeted towards treating diseases, such as hemoglobinopathies, cancer, liver, and neuromuscular diseases. In order to treat these diseases, CRISPR edits stem cells derived from the patient’s tissue. CRISPR can even facilitate organ transplants from animals. For example, by deleting the viral elements from a pig’s cells, the animal’s organs can now be safe to transplant into humans, which could potentially help fight HIV.
Bioethical opinions on genome editing vary substantially. Some believe that the practice could exploit people and treat them unjustly. Others note that CRISPR will improve certain medical treatments, and that genome editing can help save lives. It may even help prevent spreading diseases.
Could CRISPR be the last missing piece we need to find a cure for cancer? Westmont Professor Yi-Fan Lu believes so, but only if the scientific community ethically accepts genome editing. It will cost several million dollars because scientists will need to come up with a single, specific treatment for each individual patient. Scientists can now find the one gene and eliminate the problem. However, another ethical issue is affordability. Will individualized CRISPR treatments exclusively serve the wealthy?
Despite some ethical hesitation, genome editing technology will continue to develop to be used around the world. Both risks and benefits in treating and preventing some diseases will increase to meet the standards of conventional treatments. Likewise, organ transplants from animals will continue to expand in popularity.