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Genomic 'Find-and-Replace'

Since CRISPR/Cas9, the new tool in genetic engineers' kits, is fairly simple to use, The Economist notes there are myriad ways it could be applied, though it also wonders how researchers and clinicians using it will negotiate certain ethical boundaries.

In essence, The Economist says the system works like a genomic version of the 'find-and-replace' function of a word processor. In that way, it could be used to replace faulty genes that otherwise lead to debilitating diseases, and, if performed on germline cells, CRISPR/Cas9 could make that change in perpetuity.

But that bumps up against a red line drawn by many researchers and ethicists, The Economist says. Researchers including Jennifer Doudna, a developer of the approach, Caltech's David Baltimore, and Sangamo's Edward Lanphier, called for a moratorium earlier this year on using CRISPR/Cas9 on germline cells, but shortly after that, a team in China announced it had used the approach to edit human zygotes, The Economist adds.

Further, while Francis Collins, the director of the US National Institutes of Health, says that clinical germline alterations are nearly universally seen as line not to be crossed, the UK recently legalized mitochondrial DNA donation to help women with certain diseases from passing them on to their children, and that change, too, will affect subsequent generations, The Economist notes.

"However much the well worry about the nefarious applications of gene editing, the needs of the sick will continue to drive science and medicine forward — as they should," The Economist adds.