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CRISPR Could Help Us Cure Diseases. It Could Also Cause Cancer

If you’ve been hearing about all the wonders and promises of a gene-editing capability (aka CRISPR) you may want to pay attention to researchers who have found that this “miracle” DNA tinkering process may also cause cancer. Promoted as a way to stop inherited diseases such as sickle-cell, CRISPR also can stop a gene that controls cancer cell growth from functioning, researchers said in a press release from Karolinska Institutet. Karolinska scientists said this knowledge is not only something “patients and caregivers should be aware of,” but will be critical in improving CRISPR safety.

CRISPR, or Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat, is at the most basic level a very precise way of toying with genes, where scientists go into your DNA and essentially cut and paste it at specified places. The technology can be traced back to bacteria, which protect themselves by cutting out invading viruses' DNA and inserting it into their own, then replicating the new sequences to prevent future viral invasions.

Since its discovery, CRISPR has been used for a variety of feats, from producing mushrooms that don't turn brown to removing HIV from human cells. Progress is also being made in tackling genetic diseases such as sickle-cell anemia and certain forms of blindness and muscular dystrophy.

And until now, the science world has been particularly excited about a CRISPR clinical trial in which cancer patients' T-cells are edited to remove a protein that halts immune responses. We can only guess how, or if, the news about CRISPR’s possibility of CAUSING cancer will affect this trial, but we do know that other studies have already shown that CRISPR gene-editing also leads to hundreds of unexpected mutations, with more than 100 unintended deletions and insertions occurring alongside more than 1,500 mutations — and that, alone, is pause to think.

In case you didn’t know, CRISPR and other gene-editing tools are also being used in the food industry. Gene-edited crops, in which DNA is tweaked or snipped out at a precise location, have already been created — in the form of soybeans and potatoes with altered fatty acid profiles, potatoes that take longer to turn brown and potatoes that remain fresher longer and do not produce carcinogens when fried.

But unlike genetically engineered (GE) foods, which may have genes from other species inserted, there is nothing taken out or added to these plants. They simply have their genes edited to produce the foods — which, by the way, may be ready for market as early as 2019.

Another alarming fact to reiterate is that this technology is being done on human embryos — with the intent being to stop those inherited diseases the news today is talking about. And concerns about cancer aside, if these embryos were implanted into a womb and allowed to grow, it would result in the first genetically modified children. As such, their edited genes would then be passed down to their own children.

Whether or not this will lead to “designer babies” with certain eye colors or other physical traits is something we can only speculate on. But for now, know that at least one top U.S. intelligence official has said this type of gene-editing should be added to a list of potential weapons of mass destruction that pose a threat to national safety.

Some claim it’s too soon to say whether any of these things are cause for alarm, but while many countries around the world have banned this type of experimentation on human embryos, you should know that the U.S. National Academies of Sciences (NAS) has already set the stage for allowing research on germline modification and CRISPR. And that’s something to think about.
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