CRISPR: An Overview

Technology is advancing day by day and the growth of science and technology is indispensable for the development of the world. Gene editing or CRISPR technology is one such technology that has flagged the step towards biomedical revolution. CRISPR technology gives scientists the ability to change an organism’s DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). The economic importance of this biomedical revolution and the ethical attention over it has made it eligible as a topic of discussion in the legal aspect. The economic side covers the right to patent where industries or universities fight each other exhibiting various claims.

CRISPR holds for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats and Cas9 is the CRISPR correlated protein.[1] CRISPR-Cas9 generally adapted by an occurring genome editing system in bacteria. The bacteria take fragments of DNA from penetrating viruses and utilize them to create DNA segments identified as a CRISPR array. After the viruses attack, the bacteria generate RNA segments from the CRISPR arrays to target the viruses’ DNA. CRISPR_Cas9 technology works similarly in a lab. It is very useful in the prevention and treatment of certain human diseases such as cancer, heart disease, mental illness, and HIV infection.[2] The article shall proceed with focusing on the potential use of CRISPR in psychiatry; identifying where the technology might be most immediately applied and addresses the legal, ethical, and policy issues that arise from the applicability of CRISPR in a psychiatric manner.

CRISPR-Cas9

In 2013, a unique gene-editing tool was formed – one that did not require protein engineering to address the nuclease at the target site and was just a short piece of RNA. It is a part of a microbial immune system used to defend against foreign DNA. The CRISPR-Cas9 system has shown to be simple to execute and flexible for active gene editing and has thus seen a positively remarkable level of selection.[3]

Conventional gene-therapy strategies aim to inject a healthy copy of a gene to replace the effect of the disease-causing version. This typically includes the transfer of the non-mutated gene joined into a viral vector that randomly combines into the genome. Current trials using CRISPR-Cas9 for gene therapy have concentrated on cancer and blood disorders—a trial performing gene editing on T cells to edit them to beat cancer cells in patients with recurring myeloma and sarcoma. Work is continuing on patients with sickle-cell disease and beta-thalassemia, where CRISPR-based gene therapy is being used to replace the imperfect genes that cause disease.

The evolution of CRISPR-Cas9 has provided researchers with a powerful tool with which they can perform gene editing in different cell lines and organisms. Researchers can instantly make targeted alterations to DNA sequences comparatively easily, allowing the study of gene function and interactions in the cellular meaning, and clearing up possibilities in the way we treat and prevent human illness.[4]

Right to Scientific Development and CRISPR

International organizations have identified right to science as a human right that should not be refused on grounds of invalid arguments. Even the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948 under Article 27 enumerates that every member of the society has the right to avail privileges of scientific advancement.[5] Article 27 further safeguards the protection of moral and substantial interests emerging from findings associated with science. Those who deny Article 27 argue that it should not be opposed to a public policy limiting public access. This allows everyone to benefit from scientific development and also grants rights to scientists to carry out innovations in the scientific area. It also includes the duties of the state to guarantee proper circumstances for it. The principle aspect to be ensured in this matter is that these rights be used for the common good.

Freedom of scientific research is a need in a democratic administration. Normally, scientific research starts with collecting and propagating data and information.[6] The next step is that of experimentation. Customary scientists like Newton challenge that scientific research is not a mechanical method but is more complex requiring unexpected turnarounds. But allowing complete freedom to experiment is ineffective as it can cause ill-effects to society. DNA Research is one such experiment that challenges the usually accepted moral principles like the natural abilities of human beings, human’s connections with family, human’s original structure designed by nature, etc. and becomes problematic. Scientists have seen this point sincerely and resorted to self-imposed restrictions on this practice. Some researchers prove that technologies may have destructive outcomes as well. The right to science’s dimension of obligation was treated with more importance by them. Still there exists a paradox in the case of CRISPR.

Legal Aspect

A lot of legal and ethical issues have risen as CRISPR technology became available. After all, the aim of gene editing could be characterized as removing genetic defects from the population. In 1997, a declaration was made by UNESCO which states that genome editing impairs the value of human character.[7] Various associations and personalities raised doubts against genome editing prominently against CRISPR-Cas9. International summits managed these controversies and allowed provisions to carry on research but recognized that usage of germline editing during pregnancy should be stopped concerning the safety and effectiveness.

Genome editing is completely and absolutely regulated by The Council of Europe Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicines. It allows genome editing solely for medical purposes. This law bars scientists from modifying genetic content. It strictly prohibits gene editing during pregnancy.[8] In India, provisions regarding gene editing are granted by ICMR. The council has planned to set up a task force on gene therapy research to encourage greater research in the rising field. The major areas that ICMR tries to fund include genetic diseases attacking the brain and muscles, eye diseases, heart diseases, blood disorders like Thalassemia, Sickle Cell Disease, and Hemophilia—as well as more common ailments from cancer to diabetes and lung diseases.[9] To enable germline gene editing in an advantageous manner the legal regime, rules, and protocols should move more forward. Otherwise, the scope of CRISPR would be restricted to minor medical usages.

Ethical Debate

The ethical concern in CRISPR was recognized when He Jiankui announced the birth of embryo altered babies during a scientific summit in Hong Kong. This had led to an increasing number of experiments in this field. Several scientists argued that embryo editing is not always an unethical practice and can be valid at the time of a severe predictable illness in newborn babies.

The application of CRISPR in the agricultural sector, gene drives, and human traits are also challenged on ethical grounds. Also, the unintended mutation of the germline is the off-target effect on humans is considered as unethical. In contrast, a germline mutation is a process in which cells are mutated from eggs and sperm are derived, and through these genetic changes are passed to the next generation.[10] Whereas in a somatic cell modification is confined to progeny the original cell that acquired the mutation and is not passable from parent to child. A sharp distinction between germline mutation and somatic cell modification is slightly impractical. It is also plausible that science may find a way to intentionally change the germline to exterminate targeted conditions from expected offspring. If this is the fact, CRISPR trials in psychiatry do have the potential to transform later generations. Scientists must recognize the ethics of possibly excluding genes associated with psychiatric conditions form future offspring’s genetic outlines.

Conclusion

Human beings throughout their lifetime had shown interest in improving the standard of living. It is scientific development that appeared as a tool in carrying us forward to where we are now. Episodes of unethical practices in the use of technology intensified the concern of lawmakers and they began looking to it more seriously. If unethical practices continue it affects the survival of the entire human culture. Specific and all-encompassing guidelines on CRISPR technology have still not been made by the authorities. The future of the human species is mostly dependent on bio-medical technology. Information concerning technology should be accurately followed by a legal regime to enact fair laws on this complex subject. Especially it can play a crucial role in the development of developing countries. In the ethical discussion, the call is always for humanity but the question is the technological revolution is the one most successor for social development.


[1] Alexandra L Foulkes, Legal & Ethical implications of CRISPR applications in Psychiatry (2019)

[2] What are genome editing & CRISPR-Cas9, Genetics Home Reference; https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/primer/genomicresearch/genomeediting

[3] Lucy Thorne, A brief history of gene editing, Biocompare.com (Feb 11, 2020)

[4] Supra 3

[5] Article 27-; “Everyone has the right to freely participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits. Everyone has the right to the protection of moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author”.

[6]  Richard Degado & David R Mien “God Galileo and Government- Towards the protection of Scientific Inquiry”,53 Washington law review  353 (1978).

[7] Article 24, UNESCO (Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights)

[8] Genome Editing Human Rights (April 2, 2020; 11:14 IST); https://www.nuffieldbioethics.org/blog/genome-editing-human-rights- posthuman

[9] ICMR Planning gene therapy research boom in India, Trial Site News (Dec 15, 2019); https://www.trialsitenews.com/indian-council-on-medical-research-planning-gene-therapy-research-boom-in-india/

[10] Supra 1

Malini Raj from University of Petroleum and Energy Studies

EDITOR: SANSKRITI SOOD

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