As scientists have learned more and more about the human genome, they have been able to identify a number of diseases and disorders that are caused by genetic mutations or mistakes. The idea of identifying a specific gene or group of genes that cause such diseases and disorders is a huge first step to finding a cure.
One example is the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes and breast cancer. Everyone has these genes, which scientists have discovered play an important role in repairing cell damage, allowing breast and ovarian cells to grow and function normally. However, mutations of either or both of these genes greatly increase a person’s chance of developing breast cancer. Genetic tests have been developed to detect if a person has the normal or mutational forms of the BRCA1 and/or BRCA2 gene. Some women who have had these tests and learn that they have the mutations, have opted to have a mastectomy to reduce the chance of developing breast cancer. Actress Angelina Jolie is one of those women.
Another example is a rare non-hereditary mutation that causes a condition known as McCune Albright Syndrome (MAS), which occurs in about 1 in 1 million people, meaning that there are just over 300 people in the United States with this condition and my oldest daughter is one of them. This condition which affects the skin, bones, vision and organs, can lead to an early death. According to the NIH – US National Library of Medicine:
“McCune-Albright syndrome is caused by a mutation in the GNAS gene. The GNAS gene provides instructions for making one part of a protein complex called a guanine nucleotide-binding protein, or a G protein.”
“In a process called signal transduction, G proteins trigger a complex network of signaling pathways that ultimately influence many cell functions by regulating the activity of hormones. The protein produced from the GNAS gene helps stimulate the activity of an enzyme called adenylate cyclase. GNAS gene mutations that cause McCune-Albright syndrome result in a G protein that causes the adenylate cyclase enzyme to be constantly turned on (constitutively activated). Constitutive activation of the adenylate cyclase enzyme leads to over-production of several hormones, resulting in abnormal bone growth and other signs and symptoms of McCune-Albright syndrome.”
What if an early test of an embryo (early stage of human baby development) could detect genetic mutations such as those associated with breast cancer, McCune Albright Syndrome and others? Would it be wrong to use technology to fix or repair those mutations?
The technology exists using what is referred to as CRISPR technology (clusters of regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats). CRISR is being used to edit the genes or DNA of cells. In simple laymen terms, CRISPR functions by cutting and splicing the genetic code to remove or replace defective genes. (Please understand that it is far more complicated than that, but I’m just trying to give a basic idea of what it does.)
Some believe that CRISPR can be used to edit the genome of an individual embryo to create a model or perfect human person. Theoretically, CRISPR could be used to determine things like sex, color of eyes, hair, and other physical attributes to create a designer baby, as well as eliminating a number of genetically caused conditions and diseases.
Now, some of the world’s leading scientists and ethicists are calling for a moratorium on the use of CRISPR to edit the genes of human babies. One of their fears is that making designer babies could produce permanent changes to the human species.
This idea is frightening to many and instantly raises the alarm for many people, just like their fear of genetically modified foods.
I’m not going to take sides, but allow me to say that mankind has been intentionally changing the genome of plants and animals for centuries. We know it as selective breeding. That’s how we have nearly 200 different breeds of dogs. Selective breeding has produce the different varieties of cows, some of which were selectively bred to produce more milk, others for more muscle mass, some to survive in colder or hotter climates and so one. The same is true for cats, sheep, chickens, goats, horses and so on.
Check out the numerous varieties of different vegetables, flowers, shrubs and trees. There are numerous types of apples, plums, peaches, apricots, cherries, oranges, grapefruit and so on. The same is true with different types of tomatoes, beans, corn, peas, onions, carrots, watermelons, cantaloupe, potatoes and so one. How do you think we got so many different types of roses or daylilies?
In plants and animals, selective breeding has also been used to produce more disease resistant organisms. It’s been used to try to eliminate certain genetic mutations from the overall genome of that organism.
It’s all been the result of selective breeding, which is a process that intentionally changes the genome of the plants of animals. Selective breeding takes several to many generations while CRISPR can change an individual all at once. Selective breeding does result in permanent changes to an organism’s genome, yet, scientists don’t seem concerned about that.
One last thought. Many people often intentionally select someone of the same ethnic group as themselves to mate with – whites with whites – blacks with blacks – Asians with Asians – Irish with Irish – Jews with Jews – Muslims with Muslims – and so. Isn’t this also a form of selective breeding?
Ethically speaking, is there any real difference between the two methods of altering an organism’s genetics?
The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Barb Wire.