The twentieth century was one of scientific revolutions: advances in agriculture saved millions of lives, the discovery and mass-production of antibiotics made routine medical procedures safer, vaccines became more widespread, and plastics made products cheaper and more affordable for the general populous. It would be easy to go on, but to do so would gloss over the challenges that now face us.
Despite recent advancements in vaccine development and disease control, vector-borne diseases (namely malaria, Yellow fever, sleeping sickness and Chagas’ disease) still cause over one million deaths annually. Mosquitoes are perhaps the most notorious of such vectors, but other arthropod species may also carry the causative parasites.
Reports of developments in CRISPR-Cas9 technologies are near-ubiquitous, with scientific and mainstream news outlets alike regularly announcing breakthroughs facilitated by the technology. However, despite all the potential applications for CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing, it is perhaps those that concern personal health that have captured the public’s imagination.
There has been a long-drawn out debate concerning the ethics, regulation and – principally – safety of introducing genetic modifications to organisms intended to be consumed by humans. Researchers have largely failed to convince regulators that their products are safe whilst anti-GMO campaigners have persuaded much of the public into believing that modified organisms are inherently dangerous and their developers cannot be trusted.
Once a relatively obscure topic of research, clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR) loci are one of the primary components of a prokaryotic adaptive immune system. Put simply, the defensive mechanism works by incorporating parts of an invading virus’ DNA into spacer sequence.
Though CRISPR initially encountered fame as a revolutionary method used to edit DNA, it can also be used to cleave strands of RNA. Interestingly, this technique was developed by the team at the Broad Institute that were the first to use CRISPR-Cas9 in mammalian cells.
It is rare that the development of a new scientific technique causes just as much furore amongst the general public as it does amongst researchers. The announcement of CRISPR-Cas9 as a new means of achieving high-precision genome editing was one such occasion: in 2013, when it was first announced that the technology had been used to edit mammalian cells, questions of safety, ethics and “designer babies” dominated headlines and incited public debate.
Society generates, accepts and endorses rules and regulation laid out by government. However, as the issues become less practical and more intangible, widespread social acceptance of certain ideologies and behaviours is harder to achieve.
Headlines have touted CRISPR-Cas9 as a technology with endless abilities for the future – from changing DNA, to introducing new genes and alter levels of gene expression. All culminate in either optimistic declarations of personalised medicine and new, climate-resistant foods or warnings that the new technology heralds an era of increased inequality, eugenics and “super-humans”.