Correcting the Genome with CRISPR: Ethical challenges

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Andrea Vicini, SJ

 Andrea Vicini, SJ / Science / 28 September 2021


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The year 2020 was dominated by the Covid-19 global pandemic with its incredible cost in human lives and multiple economic, social and spiritual consequences. For those involved in genetic research, and particularly in the area of gene editing techniques, 2020 will be remembered also for the prestigious international recognition – the Nobel Prize – and the initial clinical successes of the genome editing technique called “CRISPR-Cas9.”[1] Any comment on these achievements needs to take into account some ethical considerations. In dialogue with researchers and “all people of good will,” as Pope Francis desires,[2] we can ask ourselves how we should discuss such developments in terms of ethics.

Genetic research between progress and difficulties

Genetic research is expanding thanks to the completion in 2003 of the international research project on the human genome, which made it possible to obtain the DNA sequence[3] and identify and map the genes of the human genome. This development in genetics is promising, at the research level and at the level of application in prevention, as well as in the clinic, making it possible to develop tests and facilitate genetic screening. Researchers, health professionals and citizens expect new therapies to treat and possibly cure many genetic diseases. However, medicine, at least for the moment, has achieved limited success in this field.[4]

In order to correct genetic mutations that cause syndromes and diseases, the expectation was that it would be possible to introduce the necessary corrections into the cells, using viruses after inactivating them: for example, the common viruses that cause colds (called rhinoviruses and adenoviruses,) flu (influenza viruses) or retroviruses (such as the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, which causes AIDS).

Although positive results were obtained in the laboratory and in animals, the death of some patients – in the USA and in France[5] – terminated clinical trials. On the one hand, the viruses used seemed to cause unexpected reactions in patients; on the other, genetic information seems to depend not only on genes, but on the many factors that contribute to regulating and modulating this information, represented by the various messenger RNAs and the entire cellular system, the field of epigenetics.[6]

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