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Biomedical Research

Genetic Engineering: Can Diseases Be Eradicated Forever?

Contagious diseases spread by mosquitoes have plagued the Earth for decades. However, new technological advancements in genetic engineering may help put an end to this.

Introduction

Since its discovery in 1973, huge strides have been made in genetic engineering. Some examples include arctic apples, mouse ear cress, and even onions that do not make you cry. Genetically modified food even comprises much of what we eat today, with roughly 60-70% of processed food in grocery stores containing genetically modified parts. However, some are still concerned about the potential consequences of this relatively new technology, as there are unknown side effects. Even though we constantly hear disturbing reports about genetically modified food, we barely hear something substantive about this exciting issue. Researchers have been looking into altering the genetic information of contagious diseases. These diseases have plagued the earth for decades, taking millions of lives along the way. Could the power of genetic engineering be used to eliminate them completely?

The Zika virus has spread exponentially across the globe, through mosquitoes. The virus causes horrific birth defects in pregnant women and weakens people’s immune systems by damaging nerve cells. There is no treatment available. Another virus that spreads in a similar way is malaria. In the salivary glands of a mosquito, thousands of sporozoites wait before the mosquito penetrates a humans flesh, they then move to the liver, while avoiding the immune system. They remain here in stealth mode for up to a month, eating the cells alive and creating thousands of copies of themselves. These diseases are a threat to nearly half the world’s population, and account for millions of deaths. What if you could use genetic engineering to stop the spread?

What is Genetic Engineering?

Genetic engineering, or gene modification, is the DNA alteration process in the nucleus of an organism. According to the national Human Research Institute, genetic engineering can be done by using recombinant DNA (rDNA) or DNA derived from two or more distinct species and then combined into a single molecule.This technology has been used to create things like safer lithium-ion batteries and crops such as Sweet Plum. Genetically engineered plants, known as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), may be engineered to be less susceptible to disease or to suit particular environmental requirements. In addition to this, there are many genetically modified organisms, for example, mosquitoes that were modified in the lab.

How Can This Help Stop Diseases?

The particular virus of Zika is spread through the bite of a mosquito. The mosquito is the natural carrier for human pathogens that have been present for nearly 200 million years. There are trillions of them, and one will lay up to 300 eggs at a time. They’re virtually difficult to eliminate. In order to stop the mosquito the entire mosquito population must be re-engineered. This can be done using a new technology, CRISPR. CRISPR is an easy but efficient method for genome editing. It helps researchers to quickly alter DNA sequences and change the role of genes. It also serves as a tool to modify genes. This can be achieved by adding a cut or break in the DNA and by tricking the cell’s own DNA repair mechanisms into making the improvements that one needs.Through this genetic modification, scientists have successfully developed a strain of mosquitoes that are resistant to the malaria parasite by inserting a new antibody gene directly targeting plasmodium. This same theory could be applied to the Zika virus, or any other similar virus that relies on a host such as Lyme disease, sleeping sickness, and West Nile virus. These mosquitoes would never even carry the disease and millions of lives could be saved. On top of this, if the new gene becomes dominant over the next generation it will overpower the old gene.  If sufficiently modified mosquitoes were to mate with natural mosquitoes, the gene would spread very quickly. Thanks to this, 99.5 percent of all designed mosquitoes’ offspring will not carry the virus.

Concerns

There are still many concerns considering that CRISPR is a new technology. Critics of genetic engineering are vocal about the potential consequences such a move may have, such as potential environmental harm. Additionally, after the gene is edited, there is simply no way to change it back to normal; meaning that those consequences are there to stay if something goes wrong. There are simply many things that we do not know yet. Perhaps the worst-case situation here is that it does not work, or that the parasite adapts in a negative way. Finally there are ethical concerns, with people stating that genetic engineering is “playing with nature.” All of these factors make it unsure if this technology will be used.  

Harshal Chinthala, Youth Medical Journal 2020

References

“What Is Genetic Engineering?” Facts, The Public Engagement Team at the Wellcome Genome Campus, 17 Feb. 2017, http://www.yourgenome.org/facts/what-is-genetic-engineering. 

Bohanec, Dr. Borut. “10 Successful Examples of Genetic Modification – Metina Lista %.” Metina Lista, 4 Jan. 2017, metinalista.si/10-successful-examples-of-genetic-modification/. 

Plumer, Brad. “How Widespread Are GM Foods?” Vox, Vox, 3 Nov. 2014, http://www.vox.com/2014/11/3/18092748/how-widespread-are-gm-foods. 

Vidyasagar, Aparna. “What Is CRISPR?” LiveScience, Purch, 21 Apr. 2018, http://www.livescience.com/58790-crispr-explained.html. 

@sxbegle, Sharon Begley, et al. “Biologists: Let’s Sic ‘Gene Drive’ on Zika-Carrying Mosquitoes.” STAT, 8 Aug. 2016, http://www.statnews.com/2016/02/03/zika-gene-drive-gene-editing/. 

“’Gene Drive’ Mosquitoes Engineered to Fight Malaria.” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, http://www.nature.com/news/gene-drive-mosquitoes-engineered-to-fight-malaria-1.18858. 

By Harshal Chinthala

Harshal Chinthala is student in Kansas City. He is interested in the fields of neurology and cardiology.

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