Scientists have made progress in the field of gene manipulation. The new method known as “prime editing” was established by researchers from the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT.
Prime editing is an adaption of CRISPR gene alteration, only more acute and diverse. Where the old CRISPR-Cas9 technique changes sections of DNA by altering or removing certain strands, prime editing has the potential to create new DNA. It allows scientists to modify, transfer, remove, or insert what they like.
“With prime editing, we can now directly correct the sickle-cell anemia mutation back to the normal sequence and remove the four extra DNA bases that cause Tay Sachs disease, without cutting DNA entirely or needing DNA templates,” explains David Liu, an author of the study.
“The versatility of prime editing quickly became apparent as we developed this technology,” says Andrew Anzalone, another author of the study.”The fact that we could directly copy new genetic information into a target site was a revelation. We were really excited.”
Going forward, the group of scientists will try to perfect the new method and optimize its effectiveness in different kinds of cells, and investigate the possible impact on the cells. The team will also be experimenting on various types of diseases to find the right approach for human applications.
The field of gene alteration remains to be a fairly new power at humankind’s fingertips. CRISPR-Cas9 comes from revelations that are roughly 10 years old but introductory practices on humans only took place in 2016. A year later, the Broad Institute discovered a method known as base editing, which allows for alterations to specific sets of DNA without cutting the DNA.
Ethics of gene modification
Many in the scientific community wonder if gene editing is a path that humans should be tampering with. There is concern that it might lead the way to the inappropriate manipulation of human embryos, or even unanticipated mutations and diseases. One team of researchers – which includes the scientist who developed the CRISPR technique – suggested the temporary suspension of human germline editing, which is essentially the alteration of hereditary DNA that can be transferred to the following generation. The group noted a number of ethical factors and referred to the Chinese scientist, He Jiankui, who supposedly altered genes to produce two babies in 2018 that would be resistant to AIDS. The act has been criticized around the world and Chinese authorities have deemed it to be “abominable in nature”.