Brace yourself for Gattaca comparisons. A powerful gene-editing tool that could pave the way for genetic engineering has been approved for use in humans to fight cancer. Image: McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT
Scientists will use the tool, called CRISPR cas-9, to change immune-system cells. That way, when they're put back into the patient, the cells attack the tumour cells responsible for myeloma, melanoma and sarcoma. It's key to note that this experiment, proposed by scientists at the University of Pennsylvania, is somatic, meaning it will not create changes that can be inherited.
Still, the approval is a big step forward in the bioethics debate around CRISPR and its potential uses. Many have said that the technology brings us very close to designer babies, and there has been much debate on the pros and cons of being able to genetically engineer our children.
While it's unlikely US or Australian regulators would want CRISPR to be used for genetic engineering, the worry is that other countries might not be so scrupulous -- and if other countries start engineering kids to have higher IQs, we might have to start so we don't fall behind. (That worry isn't unfounded, since Chinese scientists have already edited the human genome of an embryo, creating changes that would be heritable though in this case they did not use viable embryos.)
So, CRISPR is an ethical minefield and the worries aren't as outlandish as they might seem. But for now, no genome changes have happened and the approval is just for a cancer treatment, which is something almost everyone can get behind.