By Aleicia Zhu
Published 1:53 PM EST, Mon February 15, 2021
As a doctor, oftentimes you are left disappointed. Sometimes, the patient comes in, gets treatment, and grows healthy once again. Sometimes, however, the doctor is powerless. No matter how many hours they spend studying, working, and researching, they are not gods. They cannot guarantee life.
With emerging technology, doctors could still have immense power. First, some context. Within psychology, the greatest question is nature vs. nurture. It has raged on over millennia, from the Ancient Greeks to the Enlightenment, finally ending in a not-so-satisfying conclusion. The answer: it is both. Nurture works with nature. The issue is that nurture is malleable while nature is not.
How it Works
So, this is the breakthrough. Over the past decades, insights into this idea have fueled a biotechnology boom. By the early 2000s, the Human Genome Project sequenced the first full human genome. Moreover, the original costs began in the millions. Then, it was the price of a house. Now, it is closer to the price of a TV. In addition to mapping the code of life, the tools to manipulate it arose as well.
Cas9 technology is like a set of amazingly powerful scissors. Derived from a humble bacterium, Cas9 is an enzyme that can be guided to cut specific sites on DNA. It forms part of the CRISPR/Cas9 system. For clarity, CRISPR stands for clusters of regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats. Essentially, they consist of repeating nucleotide sequences along with spacers, snippets of other DNA. In bacteria, this system was used as a defense against viral attacks. Afterward, parts of the viral DNA were assimilated as spacers. The reason is akin to that of why we use vaccines; it helps the bacteria recognize the virus, then attack it with vicious efficiency. Using CRISPR/Cas9, scientists can slice DNA and supply their choice of repair materials. In sum, they have the power to edit genes.
With the power to edit genes, the possibilities are endless. Grueling ailments like cancer and Parkinson’s have been found to have genetic links, allowing gene editing to become a possible treatment. Also, there is a tie back to the nature vs. nurture question. Though experience wields its own power, if nature, the basis of being, is changed, the results could be drastic. Then, there is a delve into the darker side. By now, GATTACA is a movie that has assimilated into the repertoire of every science teacher. In it, it depicts the consequences of changing what humans, perhaps, should have not had the power to change. The main character faces discrimination for being unmodified. There, he is labeled a degenerate. Outside of movies, concerns about this have arisen. What of designer babies? Should parents have the power to change their children’s appearance and characteristics? In China, should those twins have been edited?
Even so, GATTACA was made over two decades ago. That Chinese scientist was jailed. Finally, the promised gene-therapy is not yet ready. With risky outcomes and high costs, gene-editing is still not a world-changing phenomenon. It is not a mainstay in hospitals, and more conventional treatment is still the norm. Thus, it is vital to recognize that the invention itself is not the prime break-through. It is the innovations.
As legislators ponder the ethics, gene-editing technology is still being researched for its applications and improvement. For now, people can discard it as a pipe-dream. Currently, it is too new, untested, and inefficient to be effective. So, out of the doctor’s tool-kit, it stays. People can turn a blind eye to it and also its consequences. However, when it waits, develops, and grows stronger, what can people do then? The ethical consequences will rear again. It could create discrimination, like in GATTACA. It could exacerbate existing class conflict. It could create an irreparable schism in this world. However, if they look at their dying family and friends, and they know that there is something that can be done, will they overlook that?
Overall, the innovations in gene-editing technology could turn doctors into gods of healing or the facilitators of dystopian nightmares. Either way, it will endow the biological and medical community with immense power. How it will be used, however, is yet to be seen.
- Quakenbush, John. “Human Health Through the Lens of Genomic Data: A Conversation with Professor John Quakenbush.” 2020 Global Health and Leadership Conference, Harvard College Vision, 23 May 2020, Guest Lecture.
- What is CRISPR-Cas9? (2016, February 2). Your Genome. https://www.yourgenome.org/facts/what-is-crispr-cas9