gene editing

The Aedes aegypti mosquito, which can carry devastating diseases, was recently engineered by a biotech company to have a genetic "kill switch" intended to crash the local population in the Florida Keys.

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Lurking among the swaying palm trees, sugary sands and azure waters of the Florida Keys is the most dangerous animal on earth: the mosquito.

While there are thousands of varieties of mosquitoes, only a small percentage of them are responsible for causing disease. One of the leading culprits is Aedes aegypti, which thrives in the warm standing waters of South Florida, Central America and other tropical climes, and carries the viruses that cause yellow fever, dengue, chikungunya and Zika.

Dengue, a leading cause of death in many Asian and Latin American countries, causes bleeding and pain so severe that it's referred to as "breakbone fever." Chikungunya and yellow fever can both be fatal, and Zika, when contracted by a pregnant woman, can infect her fetus and cause devastating birth defects, including a condition called microcephaly. Babies born with this condition have abnormally small heads and lack proper brain development, which leads to profound, lifelong disabilities.

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Eve Herold
Eve Herold is a science writer specializing in issues at the intersection of science and society. She has written and spoken extensively about stem cell research and regenerative medicine and the social and bioethical aspects of leading-edge medicine. Her 2007 book, Stem Cell Wars, was awarded a Commendation in Popular Medicine by the British Medical Association. Her 2016 book, Beyond Human, has been nominated for the Kirkus Prize in Nonfiction, and a forthcoming book, Robots and the Women Who Love Them, will be released in 2019.
Photo by the National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

In November 2020, messenger RNA catapulted into the public consciousness when the first COVID-19 vaccines were authorized for emergency use. Around the same time, an equally groundbreaking yet relatively unheralded application of mRNA technology was taking place at a London hospital.

Over the past two decades, there's been increasing interest in harnessing mRNA — molecules present in all of our cells that act like digital tape recorders, copying instructions from DNA in the cell nucleus and carrying them to the protein-making structures — to create a whole new class of therapeutics.

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David Cox
David Cox is a science and health writer based in the UK. He has a PhD in neuroscience from the University of Cambridge and has written for newspapers and broadcasters worldwide including BBC News, New York Times, and The Guardian. You can follow him on Twitter @DrDavidACox.
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The CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing tool could be used to "turn off" pain directly, raising ethical questions for society.

(Photo by Aliyah Jamous on Unsplash)


Scientists have long been aware that some people live with what's known as "congenital insensitivity to pain"—the inability to register the tingles, jolts, and aches that alert most people to injury or illness.

"If you break the chain of transmission somewhere along there, it doesn't matter what the message is—the recipient will not get it."

On the ospposite end of the spectrum, others suffer from hyperalgesia, or extreme pain; for those with erythromelalgia, also known as "Man on Fire Syndrome," warm temperatures can feel like searing heat—even wearing socks and shoes can make walking unbearable.

Strangely enough, the two conditions can be traced to mutations in the same gene, SCN9A. It produces a protein that exists in spinal cells—specifically, in the dorsal root ganglion—which transmits the sensation of pain from the nerves at the peripheral site of an injury into the central nervous system and to the brain. This fact may become the key to pain relief for the roughly 20 percent of Americans who suffer from chronic pain, and countless other patients around the world.

"If you break the chain of transmission somewhere along there, it doesn't matter what the message is—the recipient will not get it," said Dr. Fyodor Urnov, director of the Innovative Genomics Institute and a professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley. "For scientists and clinicians who study this, [there's] this consistent tracking of: You break this gene, you stop feeling pain; make this gene hyperactive, you feel lots of pain—that really cuts through the correlation versus causation question."

Researchers tried for years, without much success, to find a chemical that would block that protein from working and therefore mute the pain sensation. The CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing tool could completely sidestep that approach and "turn off" pain directly.

Yet as CRISPR makes such targeted therapies increasingly possible, the ethical questions surrounding gene editing have taken on a new and more urgent cast—particularly in light of the work of the disgraced Chinese scientist He Jiankui, who announced in late 2018 that he had created the world's first genetically edited babies. He used CRISPR to edit two embryos, with the goal of disabling a gene that makes people susceptible to HIV infection; but then took the unprecedented step of implanting the edited embryos for pregnancy and birth.

Edits to germline cells, like the ones He undertook, involve alterations to gametes or embryos and carry much higher risk than somatic cell edits, since changes will be passed on to any future generations. There are also concerns that imprecise edits could result in mutations and end up causing more disorders. Recent developments, particularly the "search-and replace" prime-editing technique published last fall, will help minimize those accidental edits, but the fact remains that we have little understanding of the long-term effects of these germline edits—for the future of the patients themselves, or for the broader gene pool.

"We need to have appropriate venues where we deliberate and consider the ethical, legal and social implications of gene editing as a society."

It is much harder to predict the effects, harmful or otherwise, on the larger human population as a result of interactions with the environment or other genetic variations; with somatic cell edits, on the other hand— like the ones that would be made in an individual to turn off pain—only the person receiving the treatment is affected.

Beyond the somatic/germline distinction, there is also a larger ethical question over how much genetic interference society is willing to tolerate, which may be couched as the difference between therapeutic editing—interventions in response to a demonstrated medical need—and "enhancement" editing. The Chinese scientist He was roundly criticized in the scientific community for the fact that there are already much safer and more proven methods of preventing the parent-to-child transmission of HIV through the IVF process, making his genetic edits medically unnecessary. (The edits may also have increased the girls' risk of susceptibility to other viruses, like influenza and the West Nile virus.)

Yet there are even more extreme goals that CRISPR could be used to reach, ones further removed from any sort of medical treatment. The 1997 science fiction movie Gattaca imagined a dystopian future where genetic selection for strength and intelligence is common, creating a society that explicitly and unapologetically endorses eugenics. In the real world, Russian President Vladimir Putin has commented that genetic editing could be used to create "a genius mathematician, a brilliant musician or a soldier, a man who can fight without fear, compassion, regret or pain."

"[Such uses] would be considered using gene editing for 'enhancement,'" said Dr. Zubin Master, an associate professor of biomedical ethics at the Mayo Clinic, who noted that a series of studies have strongly suggested that members of the public, in the U.S. and around the world, are much less amenable to the prospect of gene editing for these purposes than for the treatment of illness and disease.

Putin's comments were made in 2017, before news of He's experiment broke; since then no country has moved to continue experiments on germline editing (although one Russian IVF specialist, Denis Rebrikov, appears ready to do so, if given approval). Master noted that the World Health Organization has an 18-person committee currently dedicated to considering these questions. The Expert Advisory Committee on Developing Global Standards for Governance and Oversight of Human Genome Editing first convened in March 2019; that July, it issued a recommendation to regulatory and ethics authorities in all countries to refrain from approving clinical application requests for work on human germline genome editing—the kind of alterations to genetic cells used by He. The committee's report and a fleshed-out set of guidelines is expected after its final meeting, in Geneva this September (unless the COVID-19 pandemic disrupts the timeline).

Regardless of the WHO's report, in the U.S., all regulations of new medical procedures are overseen at the federal level, subjected to extensive regulatory review by the FDA; the chance of any doctor or company going rogue is minimal to none. Likewise, the challenges we face are more on the regulatory end of the spectrum than the Gattaca end. Dr. Stephanie Malia Fullerton, a bioethics professor at the University of Washington, pointed out that eugenics not only typically involves state-sponsored control of reproduction, but requires a much more clearly delineated genetic basis of common complex traits—indeed, SCN9A is one way to get to pain, but is not the only source—and suggested that current concerns about over-prescribing opioids are a more pressing question for society to address.

In fact, Navega Therapeutics, based in San Diego, hopes to find out whether the intersection of this research into SCN9A and CRISPR would be an effective way to address the U.S. opioid crisis. Currently in a preclinical funding stage, Navega's approach focuses on editing epigenetic molecules attached to the basic DNA strand—the idea is that the gene's expression can be activated or suppressed rather than removed entirely, reducing the risk of unwanted side effects from permanently altering the genetic code.

As these studies focused on the sensation of pain go forward, what we are likely to see simultaneously is the use of CRISPR to target diseases that are the root causes of that pain. Last summer, Victoria Gray, a Mississippi woman with sickle cell disease was the second-ever person to be treated with CRISPR therapy in the U.S. The disease is caused by a genetic mutation that creates malformed blood cells, which can't carry oxygen as normal and get stuck inside blood vessels, causing debilitating pain. For the study, conducted in concert with CRISPR Therapeutics, of Cambridge, Mass., cells were removed from Gray's bone marrow, modified using CRISPR, and infused back into her body, a technique called ex vivo editing.

In early February this year, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania published a study on a first-in-human phase 1 clinical trial, in which three patients with advanced cancer received an infusion of ex vivo engineered T cells in an effort to improve antitumor immunity. The modified cells persisted for up to nine months, and the patients experienced no serious adverse side effects, suggesting that this sort of therapeutic gene editing can be performed safely and could potentially allow patients to avoid the excruciating process of chemotherapy.

Then, just this spring, researchers made another advance: The first attempt at in vivo CRISPR editing—where the edits happen inside the patient's body—is currently underway, as doctors attempt to treat a patient blinded by Leber congenital amaurosis, a rare genetic disorder. In an Oregon study sponsored by Editas Medicine and Allergan, the patient, a volunteer, was injected with a harmless virus carrying CRISPR gene-editing machinery; the hope is that the tool will be able to edit out the genetic defect and restore production of a crucial protein. Based on preliminary safety reports, the study has been cleared to continue, and data on higher doses may be available by the end of 2020. Editas Medicine and CRISPR Therapeutics are joined in this sphere by Intellia Therapeutics, which is seeking approval for a trial later this year on amyloidosis, a rare liver condition.

For any such treatment targeting SCN9A to make its way to human subjects, it would first need to undergo years' worth of testing—on mice, on primates, and then on volunteer patients after an extended informed-consent process. If everything went perfectly, Urnov estimates it could take at least three to four years end to end and cost between $5 and 10 million—but that "if" is huge.

"The idea of a regular human being, genetically pure of pain?"

And as that happens, "we need to have appropriate venues where we deliberate and consider the ethical, legal and social implications of gene editing as a society," Master said. CRISPR itself is open-source, but its application is subject to the approval of governments, institutions, and societies, which will need to figure out where to draw the line between miracle treatments and playing God. Something as unpleasant and ubiquitous as pain may in fact be the most appropriate place to start.

"The pain circuit is very old," Urnov said. "We have evolved with the senses that we have, and have become the species that we are, as a result of who we are, physiologically. Yes, I take Advil—but when I get a headache! The idea of a regular human being, genetically pure of pain?... The permanent disabling or turning down of the pain sensation, for anything other than a medical reason? … That seems to be challenging Mother Nature in the wrong ways."

Eleanor Hildebrandt
Eleanor Hildebrandt is a writer and researcher from Seattle. Her work has appeared in the Boston Review and Popular Mechanics. Follow her on Twitter at @ehhilde.

In the future, a paper strip reminiscent of a pregnancy test could be used to quickly diagnose the flu and other infectious diseases.

(© Kateryna_Kon/Adobe)


Trying to get a handle on CRISPR news in 2019 can be daunting if you haven't been avidly reading up on it for the last five years.

CRISPR as a diagnostic tool would be a major game changer for medicine and agriculture.

On top of trying to grasp how the science works, and keeping track of its ever expanding applications, you may also have seen coverage of an ongoing legal battle about who owns the intellectual property behind the gene-editing technology CRISPR-Cas9. And then there's the infamous controversy surrounding a scientist who claimed to have used the tool to edit the genomes of two babies in China last year.

But gene editing is not the only application of CRISPR-based biotechnologies. In the future, it may also be used as a tool to diagnose infectious diseases, which could be a major game changer for medicine and agriculture.

How It Works

CRISPR is an acronym for a naturally occurring DNA sequence that normally protects microbes from viruses. It's been compared to a Swiss army knife that can recognize an invader's DNA and precisely destroy it. Repurposed for humans, CRISPR can be paired with a protein called Cas9 that can detect a person's own DNA sequence (usually a problematic one), cut it out, and replace it with a different sequence. Used this way, CRISPR-Cas9 has become a valuable gene-editing tool that is currently being tested to treat numerous genetic diseases, from cancer to blood disorders to blindness.

CRISPR can also be paired with other proteins, like Cas13, which target RNA, the single-stranded twin of DNA that viruses rely on to infect their hosts and cause disease. In a future clinical setting, CRISPR-Cas13 might be used to diagnose whether you have the flu by cutting a target RNA sequence from the virus. That spliced sequence could stick to a paper test strip, causing a band to show up, like on a pregnancy test strip. If the influenza virus and its RNA are not present, no band would show up.

To understand how close to reality this diagnostic scenario is right now, leapsmag chatted with CRISPR pioneer Dr. Feng Zhang, a molecular biologist at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

What do you think might be the first point of contact that a regular person or patient would have with a CRISPR diagnostic tool?

FZ: I think in the long run it will be great to see this for, say, at-home disease testing, for influenza and other sorts of important public health [concerns]. To be able to get a readout at home, people can potentially quarantine themselves rather than traveling to a hospital and then carrying the risk of spreading that disease to other people as they get to the clinic.

"You could conceivably get a readout during the same office visit, and then the doctor will be able to prescribe the right treatment right away."

Is this just something that people will use at home, or do you also foresee clinical labs at hospitals applying CRISPR-Cas13 to samples that come through?

FZ: I think we'll see applications in both settings, and I think there are advantages to both. One of the nice things about SHERLOCK [a playful acronym for CRISPR-Cas13's longer name, Specific High-sensitivity Enzymatic Reporter unLOCKing] is that it's rapid; you can get a readout fairly quickly. So, right now, what people do in hospitals is they will collect your sample and then they'll send it out to a clinical testing lab, so you wouldn't get a result back until many hours if not several days later. With SHERLOCK, you could conceivably get a readout during the same office visit, and then the doctor will be able to prescribe the right treatment right away.

I just want to clarify that when you say a doctor would take a sample, that's referring to urine, blood, or saliva, correct?

FZ: Right. Yeah, exactly.

Thinking more long term, are there any Holy Grail applications that you hope CRISPR reaches as a diagnostic tool?

FZ: I think in the developed world we'll hopefully see this being used for influenza testing, and many other viral and pathogen-based diseases—both at home and also in the hospital—but I think the even more exciting direction is that this could be used and deployed in parts of the developing world where there isn't a fancy laboratory with elaborate instrumentation. SHERLOCK is relatively inexpensive to develop, and you can turn it into a paper strip test.

Can you quantify what you mean by relatively inexpensive? What range of prices are we talking about here?

FZ: So without accounting for economies of scale, we estimate that it can cost less than a dollar per test. With economy of scale that cost can go even lower.

Is there value in developing what is actually quite an innovative tool in a way that visually doesn't seem innovative because it's reminiscent of a pregnancy test? And I don't mean that as an insult.

FZ: [Laughs] Ultimately, we want the technology to be as accessible as possible, and pregnancy test strips have such a convenient and easy-to-use form. I think modeling after something that people are already familiar with and just changing what's under the hood makes a lot of sense.

Feng Zhang

(Photo credit: Justin Knight, McGovern Institute)

It's probably one of the most accessible at-home diagnostic tools at this point that people are familiar with.

FZ: Yeah, so if people know how to use that, then using something that's very similar to it should make the option very easy.

You've been quite vocal in calling for some pauses in CRISPR-Cas9 research to make sure it doesn't outpace the ethics of establishing pregnancies with that version of the tool. Do you have any concerns about using CRISPR-Cas13 as a diagnostic tool?

I think overall, the reception for CRISPR-based diagnostics has been overwhelmingly positive. People are very excited about the prospect of using this—for human health and also in agriculture [for] detection of plant infections and plant pathogens, so that farmers will be able to react quickly to infection in the field. If we're looking at contamination of foods by certain bacteria, [food safety] would also be a really exciting application.

Do you feel like the controversies surrounding using CRISPR as a gene-editing tool have overshadowed its potential as a diagnostics tool?

FZ: I don't think so. I think the potential for using CRISPR-Cas9 or CRISPR-Cas12 for gene therapy, and treating disease, has captured people's imaginations, but at the same time, every time I talk with someone about the ability to use CRISPR-Cas13 as a diagnostic tool, people are equally excited. Especially when people see the very simple paper strip that we developed for detecting diseases.

Are CRISPR as a gene-editing tool and CRISPR as a diagnostics tool on different timelines, as far as when the general public might encounter them in their real lives?

FZ: I think they are all moving forward quite quickly. CRISPR as a gene-editing tool is already being deployed in human health and agriculture. We've already seen the approval for the development of growing genome-edited mushrooms, soybeans, and other crop species. So I think people will encounter those in their daily lives in that manner.

Then, of course, for disease treatment, that's progressing rapidly as well. For patients who are affected by sickle cell disease, and also by a degenerative eye disease, clinical trials are already starting in those two areas. Diagnostic tests are also developing quickly, and I think in the coming couple of years, we'll begin to see some of these reaching into the public realm.

"There are probably 7,000 genetic diseases identified today, and most of them don't have any way of being treated."

As far its limits, will it be hard to use CRISPR as a diagnostic tool in situations where we don't necessarily understand the biological underpinnings of a disease?

FZ: CRISPR-Cas13, as a diagnostic tool, at least in the current way that it's implemented, is a detection tool—it's not a discovery tool. So if we don't know what we're looking for, then it's going to be hard to develop Cas13 to detect it. But even in the case of a new infectious disease, if DNA sequencing or RNA sequencing information is available for that new virus, then we can very rapidly program a Cas13-based system to detect it, based on that sequence.

What's something you think the public misunderstands about CRISPR, either in general, or specifically as a diagnostic tool, that you wish were better understood?

FZ: That's a good question. CRISPR-Cas9 and CRISPR-Cas12 as gene editing tools, and also CRISPR-Cas13 as a diagnostic tool, are able to do some things, but there are still a lot of capabilities that need to be further developed. So I think the potential for the technology will unfold over the next decade or so, but it will take some time for the full impact of the technology to really get realized in real life.

What do you think that full impact is?

FZ: There are probably 7,000 genetic diseases identified today, and most of them don't have any way of being treated. It will take some time for CRISPR-Cas9 and Cas12 to be really developed for addressing a larger number of those diseases. And then for CRISPR-based diagnostics, I think you'll see the technology being applied in a couple of initial cases, and it will take some time to develop that more broadly for many other applications.

Julia Sklar
Julia Sklar is a Boston-based independent journalist who covers science, health, and technology. You can follow her on Twitter at @jfsklar.

A couple holds up a picture of their ultrasound.

(Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash)


By now you have probably heard something about CRISPR, the simple and relatively inexpensive method of precisely editing the genomes of plants, animals, and humans.

The treatment of disease in fetuses, the liminal category of life between embryos and humans, poses the next frontier.

Through CRISPR and other methods of gene editing, scientists have produced crops to be more nutritious, better able to resist pests, and tolerate droughts; engineered animals ranging from fruit flies to monkeys to make them better suited for scientific study; and experimentally treated the HIV virus, Hepatitis B, and leukemia in human patients.

There are also currently FDA-approved trials to treat blindness, cancer, and sickle cell disease in humans using gene editing, and there is consensus that CRISPR's therapeutic applications will grow significantly in the coming years.

While the treatment of human disease through use of gene editing is not without its medical and ethical concerns, the avoidance of disease in embryos is far more fraught. Nonetheless, Nature reported in November that He Jiankui, a scientist in China, had edited twin embryos to disable a gene called CCR5 in hopes of avoiding transmission of HIV from their HIV-positive father.

Though there are questions about the effectiveness and necessity of this therapy, He reported that sequencing has proven his embryonic gene edits were successful and the twins were "born normal and healthy," although his claims have not been independently verified.

More recently, Denis Rebrikov, a Russian scientist, announced his plans to disable the same gene in embryos to be implanted in HIV-positive women later this year. Futuristic as it may seem, prenatal gene editing is already here.

The treatment of disease in fetuses, the liminal category of life between embryos and humans, poses the next frontier. Numerous conditions—some minor, some resulting in a lifetime of medical treatment, some incompatible with life outside of the womb—can be diagnosed through use of prenatal diagnostic testing. There is promising research suggesting doctors will soon be able to treat or mitigate at least some of them through use of fetal gene editing.

This research could soon present women carrying genetically anomalous fetuses a third option aside from termination or birthing a child who will likely face a challenging and uncertain medical future: Whether to undergo a fetal genetic intervention.

However, genetic intervention will open the door to a host of ethical considerations, particularly with respect to the relationship between pregnant women and prenatal genetic counselors. Current counselors theoretically provide objective information and answer questions rather than advise their pregnant client whether to continue with her pregnancy, despite the risks, or to have an abortion.

In practice, though, prenatal genetic counseling is most often directive, and the nature of the counseling pregnant women receive can depend on numerous factors, including their religious and cultural beliefs, their perceived ability to handle a complicated pregnancy and subsequent birth, and their financial status. Introducing the possibility of a fetal genetic intervention will exacerbate counselor reliance upon these considerations and in some cases lead to counseling that is even more directive.

Some women in the near future will face the choice of whether to abort, keep, or treat a genetically anomalous fetus.

Future counselors will have to figure out under what circumstances it is even appropriate to broach the subject. Should they only discuss therapies that are FDA-approved, or should they mention experimental treatments? What about interventions that are available in Europe or Asia, but banned in the United States? Or even in the best case of scenario of an FDA-approved treatment, should a counselor make reference to it if she knows for a fact that her client cannot possibly afford it?

Beyond the basic question of what information to share, counselors will have to confront the fact that the very notion of fixing or "editing" offspring will be repugnant to many women, and inherent in the suggestion is the stigmatization of individuals with disabilities. Prenatal genetic counselors will be on the forefront of debates surrounding which fetuses should remain as they are and which ones should be altered.

Despite these concerns, some women in the near future will face the choice of whether to abort, keep, or treat a genetically anomalous fetus in utero. Take, for example, a woman who learns during prenatal testing that her fetus has Angelman syndrome, a genetic disorder characterized by intellectual disability, speech impairment, loss of muscle control, epilepsy, and a small head. There is currently no human treatment for Angelman syndrome, which is caused by a loss of function in a single gene, UBE3A.

But scientists at the University of North Carolina have been able to treat Angelman syndrome in fetal mice by reactivating UBE3A through use of a single injection. The therapy has also proven effective in cultured human brain cells. This suggests that a woman might soon have to consider injecting her fetus's brain with a CRISPR concoction custom-designed to target UBE3A, rather than terminate her pregnancy or bring her fetus to term unaltered.

Assuming she receives the adequate information to make an informed choice, she too will face an ethical conundrum. There will be the inherent risks of injecting anything into a developing fetus's brain, including the possibility of infection, brain damage, and miscarriage. But there are also risks specific to gene editing, such as so-called off-target effects, the possibility of impacting genes other than the intended one. Such effects are highly unpredictable and can be difficult to detect. So too is it impossible to predict how altering UBE3A might lead to other genetic and epigenetic changes once the baby is born.

There are no easy answers to the many questions that will arise in this space.

A woman deciding how to act in this scenario must balance these risks against the potential benefits of the therapy, layered on top of her belief system, resources, and personal ethics. The calculus will be different for every woman, and even the same woman might change her mind from one pregnancy to the next based on the severity of the condition diagnosed and other available medical options.

Her genetic counselor, meanwhile, must be sensitive to all of these concerns in helping her make her decision, keeping up to date on the possible new treatments, and carefully choosing which information to disclose in striving to be neutral. There are no easy answers to the many questions that will arise in this space, but better to start thinking about them now, before it is too late.

Bret Asbury
Bret Asbury is the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and a Professor of Law at the Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law. His current research explores the ethical, social, and psychological impacts that diagnoses of fetal genetic abnormalities can have on pregnant women and their families, and suggests legal and regulatory responses.