As biotechnology advances, serious diseases that compromise human dignity and wipe out millions could really become a thing of the past


On our relentless march towards mastery of the human state, it would appear that one of the medical community’s most valuable, and viable, route to the future involves taking a leaf out of the publishing world’s book. Imagine a world where the human genome came not in an immutable totality, but rather in editions. That, with the simple cut delivered to DNA, with a subtle adjustment of a given gene’s level of activity, we could edit genetic performance, and by extension start the preparations to bid a valedictory goodbye to so many conditions and diseases that threaten the quality of human life. The medical world’s editing tool of tomorrow is known as CRISPR.

Of course a technique of a name so unwieldy could only possibly be an acronym, and this one is; a punishing one, at that. Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR) are prokaryotic DNA segments, full of base sequences. Alone, CRISPR is but a naturally occurring biological precedent, but when tended to with Cas9 nuclease and a guide RNA or two, genomes can be sectioned, examined, and where necessary, radically altered. The efforts to develop this technology adequately represent a sparkling leap forward into a new era of medical therapy, following decades of hypothesis and research, in which illness can be appraised in terms of its most vital constituent elements and subsequently suppressed.

In China, under ethical test approval, we will see begin in a matter of weeks the first course of CRISPR-Cas9 gene therapy ever administered. Led by Lu Yuo at Sichuan University’s West China Hospital, the clinical trial will make lung cancer its initial target, following up on work by immunotherapy researcher Carl June. And it is not only degenerative diseases that CRISPR fits into its ambitious crosshairs of possibility, but all manner of illness. June’s own scholarship has been concerned primarily with the possibilities of gene editing to cure autoimmune disorders such as HIV. Optometrists are among those who have seen as much cause as anyone to feel liberated by the forthcoming arrival of CRISPR as a widely used therapy. According to IOVS, due to the ease of access to DNA in the cells of the eye, gene editing to combat eye-specific conditions has been successful in around 84 per cent of trials, and is already being lined up by firms including Editas Medicine (a private medical company in Massachusetts, USA) as a prospective treatment for certain forms of blindness.

Admittedly, CRISPR awaits its first batch of necessary challenges. Gene editing and correction is one thing, but mutation management, the prime cause of a great many conditions the therapy would ideally be used to combat, is far more intricately demanding. However, there is no especial reason to believe that, under natural proceedings, the available technology will not evolve to accommodate these needs in time.

CRISPR is a keystone element of biotechnology, one of the great future technologies we have simmering in the scientific laboratory of today. Its pace of development (from a wild-card research hypothesis to an internationally acknowledged, funded, vetted and managed therapeutic tool in two years) reflects the possibilities of technology achieving actuarial escape velocity, and pushing us forward into what the most committed of techies think to call the ‘Singularity’ — a world of such sophistication of and closeness to technological innovation that life will never be the same.

In a way this makes one pause to ponder, both with respect to all the life-threatening ailments whose death knell may have just been sounded by these developments and also to the Chinese embryo engineering teams. A development like CRISPR points at the future without hesitation, showing us just how fast we are getting there. But it also shows how as one part of the picture gets clearer, the possibilities of another part tend to grow just a little more mysterious still.



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