Tom O’Hara: The biggest story of 2015: cheap and effective gene-editing

If you pay attention to the news, you’d think Florida, the nation and the world are doomed.

South Florida is falling into the sea. Disney World is installing metal detectors to thwart terrorists. Jeb!, the Donald, Ben and Marco – Florida’s presidential wannabes – are predicting that Islamic extremists soon will destroy the West.

But cheer up. The big story of 2015 is Crispr/Cas9 and it’s very good news.

For laymen like us, the scientists are calling this a “gene-editing tool.”

With Crispr (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats), scientists have discovered a cheap and efficient way to cut DNA so they can disrupt bad genes and insert good ones. They compare the technique to having very precise scissors that can slice into DNA.

Until three years ago, cutting DNA was expensive, slow and often ineffective.

Some predict that Crispr may transform food production, allow doctors to cure all kinds of diseases, bring woolly mammoths back from extinction and enable scientists to create designer babies.

“Crispr is causing a major upheaval in biomedical research. Unlike other gene-editing methods, it is cheap, quick and easy to use, and it has swept through labs around the world,” according to a June article in Nature.

Scientists hope that the technique “may one day help rewrite flawed genes in people, opening tremendous new possibilities for treating, even curing, diseases,” according to a May article in The New York Times.

You know this science is a big deal because investors are plowing tens of millions of dollars into this research and there are legal battles over patents.

Two of the scientists credited with making significant contributions to the Crispr research were awarded $3 million each in late 2014.

Just to stress how sexy all this has become, Cameron Diaz had her photo taken with the winners – Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier — at the Breaktrough Prize ceremony. (Click on the Times link above to see the photo and a good graphic of how the technique works.)

Florida scientists are using the tool. At the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine, researchers are developing Crispr technology to correct genetic mutations in a gene called LRBA.

Patients with the mutation often develop autoimmune disorders such as type 1 diabetes, inflammatory bowel diseases, lung diseases and rheumatoid arthritis, said Dr. Jia-Wang Wang, the USF researcher who is leading the research.

But even if you don’t have a genetic disease or work in agribusiness, Crispr may soon enter your life. Do you want a perfect pet? Easy gene-editing may soon allow you to find the ideal genetically engineered pet. Chinese scientists have already produced special beagles and miniature pigs with the Crispr-Cas9 technology.

The next logical step – customized humans – has many scientists concerned.

They’re worried that the tool could be used “to alter genes in human embryos, sperm or eggs in ways that can be passed from generation to generation,” The New York Times reported. “The prospect raises fears of a dystopian future in which scientists create an elite population of designer babies with enhanced intelligence, beauty or other traits.”

For now, reputable scientists seem to agree that it would be a good idea to temporarily halt research on genes that can be inherited.

“Some scientists want to see more studies that probe whether the technique generates stray and potentially risky genome edits,” according to a June article in Nature. “Others worry that edited organisms could disrupt entire ecosystems.”

You can’t argue with that.

But sooner of later, rich people are going to want taller, smarter, stronger and better looking kids and there will be doctors – probably in China – who will be happy to take their money and produce superior offspring.

My hope is that the Crispr/Cas9 tool eventually will enable scientists to produce more compassionate, less violent humans. Those traits are embedded in our DNA somewhere.

We’re going to have to depend on science because so far, religion, education and military force aren’t producing a sane and peaceful planet.

Tom O’Hara is a veteran newspaperman. He is the former managing editor of The Palm Beach Post and the Plain Dealer in Ohio. His email: [email protected]. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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