Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

How to Edit a Human

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

How to Edit a Human

Article excerpt

Editing the genome of a human is now officially a thing--and it's a thing we need to talk about.

Our capabilities in this field are becoming astonishing. We have identified a set of tools that can be put in contact with a biological cell (or a group of cells) and that will go to work, robot-like, on the DNA within them. In theory, this will allow us to fix disease-causing sections of DNA, like a plumber replacing a faulty valve on a radiator.

And things could get even better than that. If you catch the fault when it is in sperm, or an egg, or even an embryo, it would be like repairing a faulty production-line robot: all the DNA units produced after the fix would be healthy and fully functioning, and so will the organism that subsequently develops.

Chinese researchers have tested this theory. They looked at embryos containing a faulty gene that would lead, in a fully formed human, to a hereditary blood disorder--unless the gene was replaced. Enter the gene editor, a co-operative group of molecules known as CRISPR, which scientists have borrowed from bacteria. The molecules evolved to help bacteria fight off viruses and the design of their weapon system allows you to customise them to chop out a particular sequence of DNA. All you have to do is supply the DNA you want in the gap. If the cell takes it up, you have a perfect repair.

The chief attraction of doing this with an embryo--or even with eggs and sperm containing faulty DNA--is that it's a long-term fix. The fault is stopped in its tracks and taken out of the hereditary line. The problem is that if the repair induces side effects, those are passed on, too.

In the Chinese experiment, there were side effects aplenty. The team put CRISPR to work on 86 embryos. CRISPR successfully removed the faulty gene from 28 of them but only a few had taken up the correct form of the gene. …

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