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Extents and Possibilities of Human Enhancement

By Paige Farber '23

We humans have continued to evolve in our comprehension of science and medicine to the extent that we now have a profound understanding of our genomic composition. As we continue to broaden our knowledge in this area, it seems inevitable that we will apply this information to the betterment of our species, but how far can we go?

At present, approximately 6,000 diseases exist as a result of genetic mutation. What if a mutation in the DNA could be completely corrected? CRISPR/Cas9 system is a new form of gene therapy that is being used with increasing frequency. CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is an enzyme that plays the role of molecular scissors, so it can cut, replace, and repair DNA strands. Cas9 (CRISPR associated protein 9) is an RNA-guided DNA endonuclease enzyme associated with CRISPR and used as a genome engineering tool to induce site-directed double-strand breaks in DNA (NCBI). With this new gene-changing technology, scientists are able not only to protect unborn babies from diseases but also to treat life-threatening diseases such as cystic fibrosis, hemophilia, muscular dystrophy, and many others. New nanotechnological devices such as CRISPR, cas9, and others have the potential to completely alter the lives of those living with diseases caused by genetic mutations.

Although these revolutionary technologies appear to offer the possibility of human enhancement with science, one objection to them is the risks that accompany them. “CRISPR isn’t perfect, and when you alter embryonic DNA, the results are passed from one generation to the next,” stated Mark Mercola, Ph.D., a professor of medicine and a member of the Stanford Cardiovascular Institute, when a group of scientists in China first began editing human embryos with CRISPR. In this instance, the mutations were not made to improve the health of an ill child, but rather to fulfill a guardian’s wishes regarding speed, eye color, and other such traits (Shwartz).  The main concern with CRISPR is not the idea of enhancement for health, but rather its utilization for self-serving genetic and phenotypic outcomes. With gene editing and enhancing technologies, the possibilities are endless. These risks pose the question of whether CRISPR is necessary to ensure healthy children. 

An alternative to CRISPR is preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), a procedure that makes it possible to identify diseases in an embryo. PGD uses the assistance of two other technologies known as vitro fertilization (VF) and assisted reproductive technology (ART). This process begins with the obtention of eggs with VF. Next, the eggs are fertilized and then allowed to develop for approximately five days. Then, the cells in each embryo are edited. In comparison to CRISPR and Cas9, PGD would ensure that genetic enhancement is used to improve health rather than to alter physical characteristics. 

Technology for genetic enhancement with science is proving to be a novel and beneficial approach to treating diseases that were previously incurable. The possibilities for continuous improvements by repair of mutations in the human genome are limitless; however, as this process is developed, it will most likely be used in several ethically questionable ways. 

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