• Question: is there a way to change the human DNA structure, if there is a problem with a person?

    Asked by 939genp37 to Remsha, Oliver, Lisa, Kieran, Fiana, David on 7 Nov 2018.
    • Photo: Kieran Meade

      Kieran Meade answered on 7 Nov 2018:

      Good question – yes we can now. It is called gene editing. Scientists can use a protein which is like a tiny scissors to cut out a piece of DNA, which will disable a gene. As a result, the gene will not make the protein it codes for. There are also ways to insert new pieces of DNA – called gene therapy.

      Google the technique, it is called CRISPR and there are some good videos online.

    • Photo: Oliver Feeney

      Oliver Feeney answered on 9 Nov 2018:

      With the onset of new technologies such as Kieran notes, also comes new ethical questions – if we can do something, should we do it is the next question. Some uses of new technologies that can change the DNA of a person (or future person if done at sperm/egg or embryo stage) may be seen as uncontroversial and a noble extension of healthcare and medicine. Other interventions are considered to change DNA in ways that extend the capacities of a person beyond what is considered normal and natural – in the case of enhancements. This are considered by many to be more controversial. See here: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/jan/08/designer-babies-ethical-horror-waiting-to-happen
      And also here: http://www.theweek.co.uk/95108/designer-babies-the-arguments-for-and-against

      Of course, it is arguable if all enhancements are really controversial. For instance, some enhancements may make the body more resilient to future infections and so act like a vaccine ‘improving normal functioning’. Each intervention, including enhancements, can be better judged individually – some good and some less good. Another big ethical issue is between genetic interventions that will only affect the person treated (somatic interventions) and others that can be inherited and so will affect future generations (germline changes) – do we have the right to make such changes when there could be unforeseen consequences? Perhaps we always unavoidably affect the future with unforeseen consequences anyway – what matters is making the best decisions we can!
      For an excellent video on this, by one of the pioneers of CRISPR gene editing, see: https://www.ted.com/talks/jennifer_doudna_we_can_now_edit_our_dna_but_let_s_do_it_wisely?language=en