March 30, 2017 0845 GMT
Gene editing techniques that have been developed in recent years could be put to work to effectively end cancer and inherited diseases, according to Dr. Edze Westra
Westra believes that the ability to splice DNA into cells precisely — a technology which is on the horizon, but is rejected on moral grounds by many — will become super important over the next 20 years.
It could completely transform the human race, he says — so that people are not affected by cancer, failing vision or the diseases of old age.
The bioscientist from the University of Exeter said: “There is always a risk with this kind of technology and fears about designer babies and we have started having discussions about that so we can understand the consequences and long-term risks.
“I think in the coming decades gene editing will become super important, and I think we will see it being used to cure all inherited diseases, to cure cancers, to restore sight to people by transplanting genes.
“I think it will definitely have massive importance.”
On Tuesday, two highly influential academic bodies in the US shook up the scientific world with a report that, for the first time, acknowledged the medical potential of editing inherited genes.
The National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Medicine ruled that gene editing of the human ‘germline’ — eggs, sperm and embryos — should not be seen as a red line in medical research.
Many critics insist that powerful new gene editing techniques should never be used to alter inherited DNA.
They argue that such a move would be the start of a slippery slope leading to ‘designer’ babies with selected features such as blue eyes, high intelligence or sporting prowess.
But the two pillars of the American scientific establishment said that with necessary safeguards, future use of germline gene editing to treat or prevent disease and disability was a “realistic possibility that deserves serious consideration”.
Westra said gene editing technology not only held out the promise of fixing genetic faults, but could be used to turn cells into miniature factories that churned out therapeutic chemicals or antibodies.
One application was the use of ‘gene drives’ that increase the prevalence of a certain trait in a population.
For instance, gene editing machinery placed inside the cells of large numbers of malaria transmitting mosquitoes could prevent them spreading the organism that carries the disease to humans.
“It could be a fantastic strategy to deal with some of the world’s biggest problems,” said Westra.
“In terms of ethics we need to work out what happens if a genetically engineered insect flies out of the window of the lab. Trials into gene drives are already happening in labs for malaria.”
The most promising form of gene editing, known as CRISPR/Cas9, was first demonstrated in 2012.
It employs a defence system bacteria use to protect themselves against viruses.
A carefully targeted enzyme is used as chemical ‘scissors’ that cut through specific sections of double stranded DNA. Then the cell’s own DNA repair machinery can be exploited to insert the ‘pasted’ genetic material.