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By Silvia Ribeiro *
On April 18, 2015, a group of Chinese scientists from Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China, reported having genetically modified human embryos with this technique, in the scientific journal Protein & Cell (Liang et al).
Weeks earlier, the scientific journals Nature and Science had published calls by several high-level scientists - including two Nobel laureates - to establish a moratorium on genetic engineering in human embryos, in particular on the modification of germ lines. This type of intervention changes the genetic information not only of the individual to whom it is applied, but of all their descendants, that is, of the species.
Scientists working on it argue that germline genetic modification is needed for medical reasons (in the case of the team in China, to remove a gene responsible for thalassemia, a type of inherited anemia).
But if the technology proves to be viable, it will open the Pandora's box of producing designer babies, for aesthetic preferences, to be supposedly more intelligent, or other reasons far beyond health.
In the context of the biotech and pharmaceutical industries, this will be the main business.
The technological background of the controversy is the application of a new synthetic biology technique, announced in 2012, called CRISPR / Cas9 (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeat (CRISPR) -associated system), or repeated short palindromic regularly agglomerated and inter-spaced , which has shown a much higher level of precision to genetically modify living organisms, microorganisms, plants and animals, since it allows cutting and silencing, eliminating or replacing genetic sequences, with much more accuracy than previously used technologies.
It also allows changing genomic functions, without necessarily introducing new permanent genetic material in DNA, so together with other recent synthetic biology techniques, such as TALEN (Transcription activator-like effector nuclease) and ZFN (zinc finger nuclease), they are clusters in what they now call genome editing. Despite being incipient technologies, the scientific and economic enthusiasm for genomic editing in animals, plants and humans is enormous and generally uncritical, except for its use in human embryos.
For the biotech industry, genomic editing is not only faster and more efficient, it is also a way to avoid regulations, claiming that no new genetic material is introduced.
They hope to convince the public that they are not transgenic so that their products do not meet as much social resistance.
That it is possible to edit genomes with these and other technologies does not overcome the many gaps and uncertainties that persist about the functions of genes, the interactions with the rest of the genome and with many other epigenetic and even environmental and ecosystemic components, nor the uncertainties about potential adverse side effects, in many cases unpredictable.
Several studies on the uses of CRISPR / Cas9 - and now that of the Chinese team on human embryos - have shown that although cutting is precise and replacement with another sequence can be effective, the process does not end there, since the use of this technology It also causes other effects, such as the mutation of sequences that were not the target.
By acting as a mutagenic chain reaction, it can attack the genes that cause certain inherited diseases, but at the same time silence or eliminate the genome's natural defenses against other ailments. In the case of the modification of insects with CRISPR / Cas9 to combat malaria, one of the concerns expressed by scientists at the University of California, San Diego is that the technology was shown to be so highly efficient in spreading (97 percent against a third part of other techniques) that, if applied, in a few generations an entire population of mosquitoes would have been genetically modified in an area, without being clear about the unwanted secondary effects of this transformation, neither in the mosquitoes, nor in the environment even the changes in other agents of the disease itself that they transmit.
These types of risks are not acceptable in any case, but more clearly in the case of releases to the environment - such as plants, mosquitoes, etc. - and of course, in the modification of human germ lines, which will lead to changes in the human genome that they affect the entire species, with dynamic and synergistic effects that are unpredictable for our children.
According to Dr. David King, from the UK Human Genetics Alert organization, which has been working on this issue for years, the call for a moratorium and voluntary guidelines on human genetic modification that some scientists are now making is totally insufficient, since there are more than 40 countries that already prohibit it.
The urgent measure now, in the face of these new technologies, is to establish an international and permanent ban against the genetic modification of human germ lines.
In addition, we need a real, non-voluntary moratorium on those who develop the technologies, to open a broad and informed social debate, much more than scientific, about these new technologies and their social, environmental, economic, health and biosafety implications.
* Silvia Ribeiro is a Researcher at the ETC Group