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Genetic engineering and the power it wields to decide our future
Genetic engineering, the process of altering an organism’s genetic makeup, has been long despised by some of the public due to its ethical issues. To others, this practice is a huge advancement in the world of medicine. There are many issues surrounding genetic engineering which include consent and safety. However, there are also many benefits that genetic engineering can bring to human society. Research has shown that the practice of genetic engineering has the potential of preparing our bodies for incurable diseases such as diabetes (1). It is of importance that humans realize the advantage that genetic engineering can bring. Yet, currently, the practice of genetic engineering is not perfectly safe, nor is it fully accepted by the general public as mistakes such as targeting the wrong type of cells might occur. However, the advancement of technology in the future will allow scientists and doctors to be more precise with genetic engineering to ensure it is as safe as possible. The goal of this paper is to discuss the current research whilst offering suggestions to further streamline the practice of genetic engineering.
Genetic engineering, DNA, genetic mutations, artificial selection
Genetic engineering is the process of using existing parts of DNA and making a new structure which can alter the genetic makeup of a specific organism (2). Yet it is not as simple as that, issues with genetic engineering are several folds; genetic engineering has the possibility to have off-target effects where edits happen in the wrong place or when some cells carry the edit whilst others do not. Additionally, since most people use genome editing for their children by using genetic engineering when the child is still an embryo, it is impossible to get consent (3). Not only that, another ethical issue concerning genetic engineering is that it goes against various religions as it can be seen that humans are playing as God. This is because we are the ones choosing the desirable traits for our offspring which reduces the variation in the human species. These issues surround the practice of genetic engineering, but genetic engineering has various benefits such as the potential of improving the quality of life for people with incurable diseases such as cancer. Genetic engineering can also prevent children from having hereditary diseases, so they will not have to suffer.
Various case studies
In the modern world, currently, genetic engineering is being practiced through the form of the technology CRISPR-Cas9. Bacteria containing CRISPR are designed to remember the DNA of specific viruses. Therefore, when the virus attacks again, the bacteria produce RNA which allows CRISPR to find the viruses’ DNA and will kill the bacteria before a more serious infection. This process is very similar to how our immune system works (4). A protein or enzyme will then be produced that cuts the DNA of the virus apart disabling it (5). This allows for more efficient treatment of diseases such as cancer. Scientists first utilized the technology of CRISPR-Cas9, which helped with alternating a genome sequence, in 2014. The significant discovery can be used in the future to regulate cells that cause diseases. Using this technology, we can eliminate diseases and improve the human race to become healthier (6). This form of genetic engineering has been tested on humans for the first time in 2016 by a Chinese researcher in various lung cancer patients. The result of this trial was that patients who have higher levels of edited cells have a slower cancer progression (7). Additionally, the side effects of the process were fever, rash and fatigues and off-target effects happened in low in which it was not dangerous for the patient. In the future, the cause of death by cancer or other diseases might decrease with the more use of this technology, especially since in 2019, the top ten leading causes of death are from diseases and chronic illnesses (8). This study is relevant as it will be the building blocks for further clinical trials in genetic engineering, so we can lower the off-target effects even more. (9)
In the presence of the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been discussions on whether modern genetic engineering can prevent pandemics from happening again like this COVID-19 pandemic. This would involve genetically modifying the microbes that are pathogenic; in this case the Coronaviridae family. With the practice of genetic engineering, scientists can hopefully remove the deadly genes in these pathogens. The future of pandemics and public health can be determined from the practice of genetic engineering and this is relevant, so we will not ever have to experience the effects that we are experiencing now such as lockdowns in the future.
Genetic engineering allows scientists to create an “oncolytic virus” made from the human herpes simplex virus 1. This can be used in melanoma immunotherapy. Not only that, genetic engineering will also allow scientists to diagnose and treat diseases whilst the child is still developing in the mother’s womb. This can significantly improve the child’s quality of life, as their recovery process will be much faster as their diseases are diagnosed early. Families with hereditary diseases will be most affected by this, and they would not worry as much when planning to have a child. As we can see here, when used properly, genetic engineering can increase developments in science and potentially help scientists and researchers find cures for various diseases (10). This study will allow scientists to develop the practice of genetic engineering leading to more efficient and accurate studies in the future.
Contrarily, many ethical issues surround the practice of genetic engineering. Safety is still a big issue for genetic engineering as anything can go wrong from the other type of cells being targeted and some cells failing to respond to the technology. This also applies to the practice of genetic engineering including CRISPR-Cas9. This is due to the limitation of the genetic engineering technology used now as the technology now is not perfect. Consent is another ethical issue of genetic engineering as it is impossible to get consent from an embryo which is where genetic engineering takes place to prevent genetic diseases. Additionally, this practice goes against many religions as it is seen as humans playing as God as we genetically modify our future children (11).
Another major issue with genetic engineering is that it will widen and increase the inequality gap between the rich and the poor. Genetic engineering is expensive, and only rich people can afford it. However, the problem lies in the fact that many people with desirable traits such as beauty and height usually earn more than those who are short and considered ‘ugly’. Studies have shown that taller people tend to have more success financially with a six-foot person earning $166,000 more than a person who is five foot and five inches (12). This goes the same with beauty, someone who is considered generally more beautiful than someone who is not. This means that the richer will get richer and the poorer will get poorer; the financially successful people will have access to genetic engineering, therefore, will be able to give their children desirable traits such as height and beauty which leads to an increased income for the child than if they were to not have those traits. However, these side effects are insignificant to the benefits that genetic engineering brings.
Future and potential solutions
Regarding the future, there is much room for improvement in the practice of genetic engineering, especially considering the risks and ethical issues that come with it. It all comes down to the nature of what genetic engineering is being used for. There should be an increase in transparency regarding this practice to ensure that no patient feels they are forced to be part of the genetic engineering process. To achieve this, doctors should explain which cells they are targeting, what is the usage, and the risks or side effects involved. With this, patients will feel more secure as they know what they are being part of, and this can reduce the ethical issue that the practice of genetic engineering as some of the ethical issues imposed by genetic engineering are based on a person’s moral beliefs.
Additionally, government policies should be created such as making sure that genetic engineering is used for the right reasons and under controlled circumstances and making it accessible to everyone. To elaborate, it should only be used for ideas such as, but not limited to; only using genetic engineering to help with future developments that will benefit human well-being (i.e.: conducting genetic engineering in viruses to prevent pandemics), and diagnosing early stages of diseases in unborn babies. Governments make genetic engineering more accessible to people with lower incomes or governments can create policies to increase the minimum wages to ensure that more people have a higher chance to access genetic engineering. Alternatively, NGOs can help with this to ensure the inequality gap does not increase.
The future of genetic engineering is uncertain. Currently, it seems that there will always be opposition to this. However, humans should be aware of the threats and benefits that genetic engineering can bring to humankind. It has the power to cure diseases, improve the quality of life of sick people and can event prevent future pandemics. The technology we have now is limited but in the future, it is guaranteed that there will be improvements in the scientific and technological aspects of genetic engineering to make it have fewer side effects.
Ultimately, everything depends on what genetic engineering is used for. When used for the right reasons, medicine will advance even further with this. In the future, developments in genetic engineering can be more sustainable and be more accessible to people who can not afford it now. We have no idea what the future of genetic engineering will hold, but I strongly have faith that there are good scientists that will help with the development of genetic engineering to ensure that we humans can reach the best standard and quality of life that we possibly can through genetic engineering.
1. “Gene Therapy.” Mayo Clinic, Dec 29 2017, mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/gene-therapy/about/pac-20384619#:~:text=Gene%20therapy%20holds%20promise%20for,when%20to%20use%20gene%20therapy. Accessed 5 Mar. 2022.
2. “Genetic Engineering.” National Human Genome Research Institute, 2022, genome.gov/genetics-glossary/Genetic-Engineering#:~:text=Genetic%20engineering%20is%20the%20process,selecting%20offspring%20with%20desired%20traits. (Accessed 5 March 2022)
3. “What are the ethical concerns of Genetic engineering” National Human Genome Research Institute, 2022, genome.gov/genetics-glossary/Genetic-Engineering#:~:text=Genetic%20engineering%20is%20the%20process,selecting%20offspring%20with%20desired%20traits. (Accessed 5 March 2022)
4. Andersen P “What is CRISPR?” Bozeman Science, 19 Feb 2016, youtube.com/watch?v=MnYppmstxIs Accessed 21 March 2022
5.What Are Genome Editing and CRISPR-Cas9?” Medline Plus, 2017, medlineplus.gov/genetics/understanding/genomicresearch/genomeediting/#:~:text=The%20CRISPR%20arrays%20allow%20the,apart%2C%20which%20disables%20the%20virus.
6. Savić, Nataša, and Gerald Schwank. “Advances in therapeutic CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing.” Translational research : the journal of laboratory and clinical medicine vol. 168 (2016): 15-21. doi:10.1016/j.trsl.2015.09.008
7.Weintraub, Karen. “Despite Controversy, Human Studies of CRISPR Move Forward in the U.S.” Sc, 13 Aug. 2019, scientificamerican.com/article/despite-controversy-human-studies-of-crispr-move-forward-in-the-u-s/ Accessed 11 Feb. 2022.
8. WHO “The top 10 causes of death” World Health Organization 9 Dec. 2019 who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/the-top-10-causes-of-death Accessed 12 Feb.2022
9. Henderson H “CRISPR Clinical Trials: A 2021 Update.” Innovative Genomics, 3 Mar. 2021, innovativegenomics.org/news/crispr-clinical-trials-2021/ Accessed 5 Mar. 2022.
10. Jain D, Sood A, Takenaka H, Sano M, So S, Tomita I, Kanayama N, Jain AK. Microbes: Friends or foe? An overview on the impact of COVID-19 pandemic on human health and modern eugenics for recurrence prevention. Environ Dis [serial online] 2021 [cited 2022 Feb 11];6:4-11. Available from: environmentmed.org/text.asp? 2021/6/1/4/312680
11. “What are the ethical concerns of Genetic engineering” National Human Genome Research Institute, 2022, genome.gov/genetics-glossary/Genetic-Engineering#:~:text=Genetic%20engineering%20is%20the%20process,selecting%20offspring%20with%20desired%20traits. (Accessed 5 March 2022)
12.Sherman, Erik. “Genetic Engineering Will Make Income Inequality Much Worse.” Forbes, 21 Aug. 2017, forbes.com/sites/eriksherman/2017/08/20/genetic-engineering-will-make-income-inequality-much-worse/?sh=6bd4faa73d75 (Accessed 5 Mar. 2022)