Post #42. Coming soon: a word-processor for your DNA

It’s often remarkable to think that it took until 2003 to sequence fully the human genome for the first time. Wind the clock on, and today ancestry and health tests based around DNA are readily available for barely $100. Science and medicine continue to push the boundaries. If your attention has not been grabbed by CRISPR in the recent past, then the concept of prime editing almost certainly will.

Molecular diagnostics, or understanding how the different underlying constituents of what makes us human interact, is a topic that we have followed with interest since 2012. We have continued to track it since, discussing CRISPR for the first time in 2017. Pronounced ‘crisper’ with the letters short for a lengthy technical term not worth repeating here, the science behind it permitted for a then unprecedented degree of precision, efficiency and flexibility in gene editing. Numerous scientific trials are underway, even if no commercial outcomes have yet been spawned. Nonetheless, developments in the field are non-trivial, particularly for those people with rare diseases (estimated at 1 in 2,000 per the FDA) and certain cancerous mutations.    

What caught our eye then this week was a publication in Nature citing research conducted by scientists at the Broad Institute (a joint venture between Harvard and MIT) which claims 89% of errors in DNA that cause disease could be correctedusing the process of prime editing. This is the result of increased flexibility and precision; or as Dr David Liu, one of the researchers, puts it: “you can think of prime editors to be like word processors, capable of searching for target DNA sequences and precisely replacing them.”

Before we start getting too excited, the researchers behind the paper are keen to stress that prime editing should be considered just as a beginning. Beyond demonstrating whether the molecular machinery capable of performing the edits is safe and consistently able to perform the right changes in the right places, there is a larger ethical issue at work. Even if the uses to which precision editing could be put are potentially limitless (consider, for example, the scope to improve food inputs and outputs by better design), the question of whether humanity has the right to engineer its own future needs to be answered. As the science continues to evolve, expect this debate to keep running.

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