The CRISPR Image

Malaria is one of the deadliest diseases in history. It has plagued humans for thousands of years through plasmodia transmitted via the anopheles mosquito, killing up to a million people each year. As a result of the use of pesticides like DDT in the United States, malaria no longer poses a threat to places once affected, including New Orleans and Washington D.C.. Nevertheless, malaria is still a prominent issue in tropical climates, most notably in Africa and Asia. The rates of death by malaria are boosted by malnourishment, which is often a consequence of poverty among developing countries. Children and pregnant women are the most susceptible because of their compromised immune systems.

“I know what malaria is, but I’ve never encountered it personally,” senior Rohan Nath contested.

It is not surprising that many do not know much about the disease, for it does not pertain to the people of the Bay Area, or much of the developed world, for the matter.

CRISPR in action, cutting a strand of DNA.  Credit to the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT

CRISPR in action, cutting a strand of DNA. 

Credit to the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT

Although the idea of contracting malaria fatally can be quite alien to a Burlingame community relatively unimpacted by the disease, many who travel may still hold it as a concern.

“I've traveled many times in southern Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, the Caribbean. I took chloroquine tablets, but only when I was in the more remote areas where malaria was prevalent,” Burlingame High School biology teacher Michael Dunn recalled. “Malaria has since evolved resistance to this drug in most regions of the world and I’m not sure it is even prescribed anymore.”

For many decades scientists have tackled with a cure. Various drugs are used to treat those ill, and vaccines have been developed to aim towards immunity, but none of these mediums could expediently eradicate the problem, with regard to political intervention and economic concerns. Recently, a new advance in medicinal technology and engineering may be the preventative solution to not only malaria, but also other diseases like Alzheimer’s and autism. This solution is a tool named CRISPR, specifically Cas9, which stands for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.

CRISPR “evolved in bacteria as an immune system to chop up the DNA of viruses that could harm them, but it can also be used by scientists to edit and alter genes, which has made it a useful tool for modifying organisms,” Dunn said.

Nothing before in the field of research for genetic engineering has been so accurate and precise on DNA, the genetic code of all living things on Earth.

“Scientists have recently used CRISPR to insert a gene into anopheles mosquitoes that causes them to become sterile so they can’t reproduce, potentially leading to their extinction, and hopefully the eradication of malaria,” Dunn stated.

Eradication of an entire disease is absolutely possible. In fact, it has been achieved before. In the 1970s, a global effort was led to rid the world of the smallpox virus. In 1980, it was declared eradicated, essentially nonexistent, not to be inflicted upon humans again. Efforts to eradicate polio and other diseases are in progress.

Without a doubt, mosquitoes can be irksome to a lot of people, besides their ability to transmit illnesses, for they bite and cause itching and countless other symptoms. However, the eradication of mosquitoes could potentially have a negative impact on the world as a whole because they play a crucial role in many ecosystems.

Alternatively, scientists have also devised plans to modify these mosquitoes in a way that hinders their ability to host the plasmodia in the first place, still allowing them to resume as a species.

This new feat of medicine, CRISPR, has the potential to eradicate serious diseases and end much suffering.

“I knew someone with autism, and I have encountered numerous other situations similar to his,” student at Oxford University Jonathan Summers told. “It has really increased my sensitivity in social settings. It is most difficult for those that are ill, but also very difficult for those around them, who are caring for them.”

Beyond medicine, CRISPR and tools similar to it have contributed and will play a major part in modifying organisms, especially in the field of agriculture. GMOs, genetically modified organisms, have been in development for many years.

Locally, common food products like tomatoes are on the market, and are most likely modified in many ways. GMOs can eliminate undesired traits in organisms, and boost other ones. For example, dark spots and bitter taste can be removed from a line of corn, and can be replaced with better features like sweeter and juicier fruit, as well as brighter color.

“Modifying food crops to be more productive or resistant to pests seems like a good thing, at least on the surface, but there are often negative consequences that are less obvious. For example, the majority of GM crops are produced by a few giant agricultural companies that dominate the market and make it very difficult for smaller farmers to stay in business, while genetically modifying corn to produce ethanol for fuel caused increases in food prices,” Michael Dunn described.

The subsidy of drug products may also spur controversy, as it did with the EpiPen dispute. In 2007, a company Mylan purchased the patent rights to EpiPen, the apparatus that introduces the drug epinephrine, which can treat severe allergic reactions. Mylan hiked up the cost of the drug to over six times the original cost, rendering unaffordable for many who suffer from conditions that require the drug.

Similarly in 2015, Martin Shkreli of Turing Pharmaceuticals obtained the rights to Daraprim, an HIV drug. He then heightened prices by five thousand percent.

People may view this action as an immoral way to make money, crossing the lines of business and saving lives.

The modification of food products has also become a very polemic issue across the world in terms of ethics and morality. On one hand, GMOs have the potential to feed the hungry at a cheap price, while on the other hand, people may find further advances in gene modification to be blatantly unethical and unrealistic. This stems from the possibility of modifying the human genome to better physical traits and tweak cosmetic desires.

“I think it’s okay to modify organisms if it is life-threatening, like autism, but modifying aspects of the human that are not immediately concerning is inhumane,” junior Viva Freedman discussed. “Gattaca, basically”.

Gattaca is a 1997 science fiction movie that depicts the potential outcomes of a society where genetic modification of humans is normal.

Freedman expressed her immediate concerns, asserting that unnecessarily modifying physical and intellectual attributes of a person would “create a weird social tier. It would raise issues socially.”

Freedman’s views of genetic modification if done by an acute definition of humane are shared by many. A large population would not like to see the financial interests of stockholders and businesses being placed above the benefit of all people.

If these concerns are addressed, genetic modification has promising possibilities.

“I think that exploring the human genome is an essential part of this area of science,” Jonathan Summers speculated. “Sometimes arguments may say that it is not right for humans to play god, but we are simply delving deeper into what has been placed before us. We strive to know more about genetics to advance the quality of our lives.”

Perhaps the most appealing aspect of CRISPR’s editing abilities is to extend lifespan and suppress the effects of aging. CRISPR has the power to lengthen the human lifespan to well over hundreds of years, and even longer in the future.

Some people denounce increased longevity, with the idea that the effects of aging would still be present.

“Terrible idea,” Viva Freedman said. “The Earth wouldn’t be able to support so many people. Having one generation around for too long could deteriorate the planet. I feel like I would just end it, but it depends on the circumstances. The boundaries for the entire world must be clearly defined before genetic engineering grows.”

“Logistically, social problems don’t matter when we don’t have enough space. All that aside, immortality is not desirable because people, in a certain lifetime, need to achieve certain goals. With an extended lifespan, people lose their exigence in life,” junior Elan Zankman argued.

“People will lose their value of life,” junior Anton Bobrov concurred, “Standards will change. If we have a seemingly infinite life, and the boundaries are undefined, we wouldn’t risk it as much anymore. Our sensitivity to death would be reduced. Death is built into society.”

An extended generation could also bring political stagnancy, trapping the human race at one point in time with no developments of ideas. There is also an ideological aspect to most religions that is based on life and death, so grasping immortality could mean a huge shift in the church.

However, knowing that the effects of aging would be suppressed, and everybody would have access to immortality, opinions change.

“I would use it to do many different things,” Freedman added, “I would contribute a lot in terms of humanitarian aid, you could do so many things. In a lifetime now, it’s hard to focus on a variety of issues, which would require putting down other things in pursuit of others.”

So immortality has a positive potential to better society and the planet, because people often do not have the time for charitable works and addressing a wide range of interests. Lengthened lifespan could be the definitive outlet for making a difference.

Like the movement to eradicate smallpox, the parameters of promoting and implementing CRISPR and newer developments would need to be clearly defined on a global scale in order to preserve societal order and prevent ethical conflicts that may lead to war. As of now, the aspects of CRISPR are yet to be clearly defined and read by the public. CRISPR and tools that will come after are merely steps in an ever advancing field of medicinal and scientific technology. Humans will need to face ongoing advances with the same conviction as before for other developments.

CRISPR represents great potential. It is the crucial role of society to address ethical and technical issues that are yet to arise.


Posted on October 17, 2016 .