Sunday, May 27, 2018

Genetic Modification Fears

In 1962 the popular Book-of-the-Month Club selection Fail Safe authored by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler hit the shelves during the uncertain days of the Cuban Missile Crisis. As a public school teacher I remember many civil defense drills such as moving my students from the classroom to the hallway and directing them to sit quietly on the floor in front of their lockers. Many other defense activities prevailed for Baby Boomers of that time as well as pre-Baby Boomers. “Fail-safe” was a popular expression. In those Strategic Air Command (SAC) days there were strong fears that things would become worse, for example, if an aircraft accidentally strayed into enemy territory during their defensive protocols. Their “fail-safe” strategies insured that inadvertent errors would not result in even worse disasters.

The expression “fail-safe” may be appropriately resurrected and applied to the current gene editing issue. Currently the gene editing industry is burgeoning and holds great promise for the benefit of humanity. In this context, “holds promise” is a loaded term with many caveats. Our current scientific challenge is to balance optimistic promise and pessimistic fears. The pressure to plunge ahead with aggressive research is balanced by equally intense pressure to exercise prudent caution. Research scientists and safety regulators are located on both sides of the balance point. Understandably, their levels of concern differ in strength.       

Some are excited about the potential for conquering diseases, eradication of disease-causing insects, design of hardier, novel, or more productive crops, or the promise of clean energy alternatives. Many commentators have pronounced CRISPR/Cas9, the most recent genetic editing technology, a world changer and the greatest potential biotechnology discovery of the current century. We may only imagine where patients  or parents of children with previously incurable genetic diseases stand on the optimism/pessimism spectrum with respect to the potential for disease cures.

CRISPR/Cas9 is a world changer. Its technology extends directly to the DNA of living things—deleting, disrupting, or correcting disease-causing mutations and inserting new genes in their place. The structural and functional characteristics of one’s most personal biological entities are deliberately altered. The genome is changed by altering the molecular structure of DNA in various ways—deleting, altering, and replacing. 

We use an inadequate, trivial analogy as an illustration: When we take our automobile to the service center, the attendant may lubricate moving parts, change the formula of the automobile’s fuel, or tighten a few loose connections. The working parts are not different, but their functions have improved. In more serious vehicular problems, entirely new parts may be installed by the automotive technician. The physical structure and functional characteristics of basic automotive entities are altered by installing new parts. Replacement of a motor is an extreme example. We may term this process a partial rebuilding of the automobile’s working parts.

When parts of a living entity are rebuilt by editing the organism’s DNA we are dealing with a phenomenon far more exciting, awesome, and fearsome. We may be discovering some of the original design features emplaced by the Creator. In our 2nd Law of Thermodynamics universe governed by a Law of Decay overlay we understand the realities of our imperfect universe where living things have suffered numerous damaging mutations in their genomes. Newly discovered medical technologies such as CRISPR/Cas9 may enable modern bioscientists to come closer to genetic integrity in our less than perfect human genetic existence.     

The CRISPR/Cas9 technology as a gene editing system has become especially well known since 2013. The CRISPR acronym was proposed in 2002. Originally it described a bacterial immune system against virus attacks. At present, more advanced gene editing technology is moving forward rapidly.            

Let us return to our initial theme: “Gene Modification Fears.” Should humans tamper with DNA? God created and designed humanity and the DNA which produces each of our human phenotypes (physical manifestations). Should we develop systems such as CRISPR/Cas9 capable of modifying the DNA with which we are created? In developing and applying new technologies bioscientists must balance negative outcomes with positive ones. The “fail-safe” concept must accompany all of our engineering efforts. Will we exercise control in CRISPR applications to quickly block potential harmful uses of the technology? Could CRISPR inadvertently alter regions of the human genome other than the intended ones? 

Dr. Francis S. Collins discovered the genetic basis of many human diseases. Collins currently directs the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda MD. In 2003 he was a pioneer in the initial sequencing of the full human genome. Collins carefully balances philosophical and theological questions against pure health improvement issues. He has discussed these sensitive issues frequently from scientific as well as  theological perspectives. He experienced the profound wonder of catching the first glimpse of our own complete human genetic instruction book. He has offered many opinions concerning gene editing issues, particularly involving germline research activity. Collins has said, “The strong arguments against engaging in this activity remain…..These include the serious and unquantifiable safety issues, ethical issues presented by altering the germline in a way that affects the next generation without their consent, and a current lack of compelling medical applications justifying the use of CRISPR/Cas9 in embryos.” Collins models wise caution in this complex issue. May our omniscient Creator give us wisdom as we apply advanced genetic technologies in our day.