Human gene editing is about to happen, but don't freak out just yet

Commentary: A British research team has gotten the go-ahead to edit the DNA of a human embryo using breakthrough tech that could cure cancer -- or bring on a comic-book-style mutant apocalypse.

Decades in the future, we'll look back on 2016 as the year humans finally began to transcend disease, or we'll remember it as the time we took the first terrible steps toward corrupting our own gene pool. Those are the two disparate futures we may be facing when you take to their logical conclusions arguments for and against using the controversial gene-editing tool known as Crispr/Cas9 on human embryos.

Which future is more likely could depend on how we move forward. This landmark moment in the history of genetic engineering is reminiscent of the first successful splitting of an atom or Henry Ford's assembly line giving birth to an American automobile obsession, both for better and for worse.

This week, the UK's Human Fertilization and Embryo Authority (HFEA) gave the first approval to use Crispr to permanently modify DNA in a human embryo. Researchers at the Francis Crick Institute led by Kathy Niakan will try to edit the DNA in donated embryos to better understand the genes needed in the earliest stages of human development. (In the United States, the National Institutes of Health are prohibited by law from funding research that involves using Crispr on human embryos.)

"This knowledge may improve embryo development after in vitro fertilisation (IVF) and might provide better clinical treatments for infertility, using conventional medical methods," reads a statement from the Francis Crick Institute.

On its face, this sounds like a pretty routine round of research if you aren't familiar with Crispr, which has stormed on the scene in the past few years with the potential to disrupt fields from medicine and psychology to agriculture and even certain sectors of manufacturing.

The tool's awkward name, Crispr/Cas9, refers to the gene and protein pairing that makes up the system and allows scientists to remove and/or replace genes in cells with revolutionary ease, control and precision. Before 2012, editing genes was about as easy as trying to sculpt a perfect Halloween jack-o'-lantern with a dull spoon. The arrival of Crispr was like being gifted with a new set of sharpened Ginsu knives to turn that gourd into a gorgeous work of art.

Geneticist Karen James from the MDI Biological Laboratory in Maine told me via Twitter that it could be an important tool for finally getting a more complete grasp of biology as a whole:

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Getting your hands on this powerful tool doesn't necessarily require the backing of a major research institution with a state-of-the-art lab, either. In fact, you can order your own basic Crispr kit to create harmless but genetically modified glow-in-the-dark bacteria at home for as little as $75 through this crowdfunding campaign.

Crispr could do for biology and beyond what the PC did for computing. Rather than working in ones and zeroes, we're talking about a relatively cheap, effective and easy-to-use tool with the potential to permanently alter the human gene pool. We're all familiar with the recent anxiety about computer viruses and malicious hacks of digital systems. Now imagine someone with the motivation and ability to spread a bug that affects the operating system of your body rather than your phone or laptop OS and you can begin to understand the stakes.

In the below TED talk from September, Crispr co-creator Jennifer Doudna explains why she and some of her colleagues have called for a "global pause" in using Crispr for clinical applications. In other words, she's saying we're not ready to start using this technology on actual patients, though she does think we could see that happening responsibly in about a decade.

The research that Niakan and the Crick Institute have been given the initial go-ahead to perform with human embryos doesn't cross the line that Doudna has drawn. The HFEA's approval comes with the specific caveat that the embryos donated are for research only. It would be illegal to implant them in a woman and they basically have to be destroyed after 14 days. Niakan's research still needs to gain approval from a separate ethics review board before it is slated to begin within the next few months.

Clearly, Niakan has no intention of creating so-called designer babies, with perfect skin, stronger bones or certain athletic gifts from the embryos she's been permitted to work with. The research marks a landmark moment nonetheless because it represents one of the first government-authorized intrusions into the human germline with Crispr. Germline cells are cells that pass on their genetic information to the next generation of cells. So, changes to the germline are potentially permanent and can be spread not just throughout the body, but to subsequent generations of offspring.

There is the potential for tremendous upside with using Crispr on germline cells to effectively begin editing out and eradicating all kinds of genetic deficiencies. Forget the need for glasses or contacts; banish leukemia to history books, make humanity resistant to malaria...the possibilities are limited mainly by imagination.

But as Crispr co-creator Doudna warns, we must be wary of the "unintended consequences" of such breakthroughs. Nobody wants to be on the receiving end of genes that have mistakenly or mischievously had "bugs" edited into them.

In December, an International Summit on Human Gene Editing convened in Washington, DC. Leaders from the field issued a joint statement endorsing basic and pre-clinical research such as Niakan's, as well as the evaluation of possible clinical use of Crispr on somatic cells, which do not pass on their genetic information to subsequent generations like germline cells do. Karen James told me this is one area of particular excitement, with potential treatments for conditions like cancer.

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Could Groot have been created from Crispr?

Video screenshot by Anthony Domanico/CNET

As for germline editing, the consensus from the summit and from pretty much the entire scientific community in the Western world seems to be that it's far too early.

Scientists in China faced a backlash in 2015 when they announced their mostly unsuccessful attempt to edit germline cells in human embryos. It's the potential for unregulated, underground or even black market uses of Crispr that keeps geneticists like James up at night and keeps writers of certain types of sci-fi in business.

We are really bad at putting genies back into bottles once they're loose in the world. Instead, we find a way to deal with technological genie overpopulation and minimize its downside as much as possible.

A century after Ford's first assembly lines, we now spend our days in or around motor vehicles even though they kill people every day. So, we develop belts and airbags to reduce that risk. And almost 100 years since splitting the atom, a combination of international cooperation and antagonism has (rather remarkably) prevented the detonation of nuclear weapons in wartime over the past seven decades.

There is hope that we can reap the benefits of tools like Crispr and avoid breaking our own genetic code in the process. But should we be afraid that we might wind up devolving into a stratified mish-mash of genetic mutant classes fighting a global civil war for the soul of humanity?

Yes, we should be afraid. In fact, we must. But if we continue to be responsible about how that fear motivates us, we might actually manage to make ourselves much healthier and happier while minimizing the number of mutant villains created along the way.

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