With medical technology and disease therapy advancing by the day, it shouldn’t be surprising that today’s researchers are finding ways to edit the human genome for both medical and non-medical purposes. One of the current systems used to do this is called the CRISPR Cas9 system and is a bacterial gene editing complex that allows specific DNA sequences to be removed, altered, or inserts new sequences into preexisting DNA and is currently being translated to human genetics as means of gene editing. While I will not get into the details of the system in this blog post, this video published to Youtube by Mayo Clinic does a great job of explaining the CRISPR Cas9 in simple, relatable terms. According to this article, the CRISPR Cas9 system is being explored in the context of agriculture and gene therapy to combat disease. In the context of health, the therapy shows promise of treatment for rare metabolic disorders and genetic disorders, including hemophilia and Huntington’s disease. Interestingly, it is also being used to create transgenic animals to produce organs for transplant for human patients. This new technology shows much promise in the medical world as a potential treatment or therapy option.
One of the diseases/conditions that is currently being explored as a potential candidate of CRIPSR Cas9 mediate therapy is that of insomnia and stress induced hyperarousal, as discussed in this article published by Science Advances Magazine this past September (2020). It is known that hyperarousal and insomnia are associated with strong activation of corticotropin releasing hormone (CRH) from the hypothalamus and also strong activation of hypocretin neurons that can be found in the lateral hypothalamus. Both of these areas of the brain are associated with the stress response in the human body, so it makes sense that over activation of these areas would cause an increased stress response, that would in turn increase physiological hyperarousal and make it harder for someone to sleep through the night. However, recent research has found that CRISPR Cas9 mediated gene therapy that removes the gene encoding CRH neurons of the hypothalamus can aid in the abolishment of hyperarousal caused by this mechanism and significantly counteracts stress-induced hyperarousal. While this is no cure to cancer, insomnia is a condition that can greatly decrease someone’s quality of life. I know that personally, if I go one night without decent sleep, my whole next day is super unproductive and all thrown off. I couldn’t imagine the world of difference that someone suffering from insomnia may experience as a result of this gene therapy.
While this system shows great promise for gene therapy as a means of combatting disease, it is also becoming increasingly common for parents to want to genetically modify their potential offspring. As with any genetic “meddling,” so to say, some ethical problems should be considered when thinking about using this gene editing system for non-therapeutic purposes. One of the issues to be considered is how normalizing gene editing for gene enhancement purposes could put individuals who are conceived naturally at a disadvantage. Practicing this type of gene editing could alter the human gene pool and introduce mutations into the population that might have otherwise not occurred in nature. While the mutation may be overall advantageous, it was not a naturally occurring mutation. This could alter the process of natural selection even further than current medical practices allow us to. The routine use of gene editing for enhancement purposes could allow us to breed “super humans” to excel in some area, whether it be sports, academics, or some other realm where it is desirable to have a significant advantage; however, this could be unethical because natural talent would no longer be recognized or even as advantageous as it is to humans now.
I do not believe that we could cure all genetically associated diseases with this process or any similar gene therapy process, although it does seem promising for many diseases. I do not think that it could cure everything due to the complexity of the human genome, in combination with the plethora of side effects that may arise from editing the human genome. Personally, I would avoid editing a human’s genome where at all possible. Of course, if someone’s life depended on the editing of their genes then I would likely be much more inclined to proceed with this extreme measure. Also, if I knew my baby had a chance of inheriting a debilitating disease or a condition that would lower their quality of life, I would likely be on board with editing that part of their genome in hopes of them leading a somewhat normal life. In general, I think altering the way of nature is a path that should be avoided at most times, although I do recognize and appreciate the fact that we have these options for the cases that it could help humankind.