Human Genome Manipulation
Human beings’ cells have 46 chromosomes, containing between 20,000 and 25,000 genes which are comprised of deoxyribonucleic acid, known as DNA. Chromosomes, genes and DNA are inherited during conception from our parents and determine many of our physical characteristics. A man’s spermatozoon has 23 chromosomes, as does a woman’s ovum. When these 2 sex cells, collectively known as gametes, combine to form a zygote, their chromosomes pair up. This fertilised cell then reproduces through mitosis, developing into an embryo and eventually a foetus.
This result of evolving for billions of years is incredible, but it is not perfect. Negative attributes of one or both parents can be passed on. Problems can also arise when there are complications during the reproductive process. If the zygote contains faulty genetic coding, then most, if not all, cells in the embryo, foetus and finally the baby will carry the same.
If our scientists can pinpoint and remove or amend these offending genes in zygotes or embryos, they can eradicate genetic anomalies that cause medical ailments and disabilities. This could potentially boost the economy in the future, by reducing the amount of NHS treatment required and enabling people to work who would otherwise suffer a condition that would render them incapable.
We already know where some of these undesired sections of DNA are located. For example, people who are colour blind (such as I am) have deficient cone retinal receptor cells caused by a recessive gene on the X chromosome’s non-homologous (or heterologous) part. More gravely, sufferers of Trisomy 21(commonly known as Down’s Syndrome) have an extra copy of chromosome 21, giving them 47 chromosomes in total. This is usually caused by an error during cell division, rather than by inheritance from a parent. These conditions and others can be prevented with the appropriate technology.
British scientists have made some recent progress in this field. Researchers at The Francis Crick Institute in London have successfully experimented with gene editing. They injected a protein named CRISPR-Cas9 into a human embryo with the intention of removing the POU5F1B gene to see what the effects of a lack of the Oct4 protein it produces would be. The resulting embryo was inviable. This study teaches scientists more about how an embryo develops and is a necessary step of discovery.
Cancer is caused in a similar way to Down’s Syndrome. Every minute of a person’s life, their cells are dying and being constantly replaced my mitosis. Occasionally, mutations occur. Contrary to popular belief, these do not endow anyone with super powers. Though mutation is essential for evolution, the vast majority of deviated DNA merely causes cells to reproduce uncontrollably. Several genes must mutate before cancer develops, so curing a cancer utilising genome manipulation is complicated and extremely difficult, but I envision that the ultimate conclusion of the research will yield technology capable of doing just that.
Gene editing has the potential to prevent or cure cases of many afflictions, from allergies to alzheimer’s; from heart disease to sickle cell anaemia; from diabetes to asthma; from depression to eczema.
The advent of designer babies, allowing parents to choose traits such as athletic prowess, is unlikely. Selecting certain criteria, such as eye colour, is more attainable but just as unethical. Politicians should introduce legislation to prevent this sort of endeavour without restricting efforts to do some real good.
Although vital, The Francis Crick Institute’s work is a low rung on the ladder of development. I believe that as soon as we properly leave the EU, we should divert some of our saved membership fees or other contributions to provide extra funding for this research. We should strive to be the first country to perfect this technology. If successful, we can improve the quality of life for generations of people as well as sell our knowledge or services to the rest of the world, to great financial benefit for Britain.