Gene editing could be a big deal. It offers some great stuff. For a few applications it also raises some interesting ethical questions.
We might be able to treat some genetic disorders by convert a “broken” gene associated back to the working version of the gene, potentially providing a one-time, life-long fix for the patient. Gene therapy has a surprisingly long history and several cases of ‘gene therapy’ has been done.
Some medical conditions have genes being used when they ought not to be. Gene editing could shut off meddlesome genes that aren’t supposed to be active. We might also develop ways to target cells with the re-arranged genes associated with some types of cancer.
The list goes on with many other applications, including in agriculture and elsewhere: gene editing is a general-purpose approach that can be put to a lot uses.
One application with thorny ethical question is editing embryos.
There’s also hype and over-blown claims – far too much of it.
Before you pitch yourself at ‘the media’, it’s not all their fault. There’s “the usual” mess from some quarters online that seem to come with any new development in biology. There’s also specialist speaking because their field. For example, some of this fuss comes from so-called futurists and transhumanists. Their view of international regulation and how society might develop can (sometimes) be interesting, but often their grasp of biology isn’t really good enough (to be polite).
Gene editing has recently been in the international media spotlight with news that an USA-based team successfully edited human embryos. This is not the first time human embryos have been genetically edited – for example, there are earlier efforts by Chinese groups who ended their work concluding that for them the edits occurred too rarely, and when they occurred too often had off-target edits or left a mixture of edited and non-edited cells.
News reports say the USA team found they could edit the cells with a high(er) rate of successful editing of their intended gene, with few off-target edits.
Their science has not yet been published. Reporting work to media before the research paper is published is not a good practice in my opinion. It can enable uncritical presentation of work because no-one can check the work itself until after the media fuss has died down.
The embryos that were edited were never intended to be grown to term and were destroyed.
This work is then very much a science-for-scientists study—it doesn’t “do” anything in the sense of being used on a person or applied as a therapy. It also doesn’t mean routine human embryo editing is just around the corner. It is another reminder that gene editing is increasingly becoming a technique we might “do stuff” with.
I hope I can bring you a few articles about gene editing and gene therapy over the coming few months.
I am writing from Asia, living off the rent of my house. Currently I’m based in one location (in Laos) rather than travelling in the hope is that I can try tackle a few longer science communication projects, among other things. These projects are being done at my expense.* My posts may not be as regular as I would like them to be as I will want to give priority to my longer-term projects.
If you’ve got particular questions you’d like addressed, or topics you’d like covered, let me know in the comments. First-time comments are moderated to filter out spam.
There are also related, but different, techniques which are easily confused. I’ve deliberately left these out here to avoid being confusing, but I’m happy to cover these two. For example, gene therapy doesn’t necessarily involve gene editing – it can be done using modified viruses.
* I would like to finance some of it by writing a few pieces for magazines or similar, but I have to admit I am feeling pretty despondent about (lack of) support for scientists wanting to write about science in New Zealand recently – a topic for another post, perhaps.
Originally from ShutterStock, royalty-free images; sourced from The Conversation.
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