Harvard University unveiled a breakthrough research in gene-editing last week — prime editing.
In their article published in Nature, Search-and-replace genome editing without double-strand breaks or donor DNA, they detailed how prime editing works and how it can revolutionize the already-revolutionary field of gene editing.
Let’s dig deeper into it.
Relatively new tech
Our DNA can be thought of as the coding of all information — our eye colour, hair type, and even the genetic defects we have if there’s any.
Gene editing is a relatively young technology which is rapidly developing the past few years.
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Developments in the gene-editing are sought for since this can serve as the answer to cure genetic diseases, to fight HIV, and to circumvent antibiotic resistance on the rise as of the recent time.
Among the notable gene-editing techniques as of recent time is CRISPR-Cas9. CRISPR acts like genetic scissors which cuts between specific portions of DNA so that modifications in the code can be inserted in.
While the capabilities offered by CRISPR is promising, it is not without its flaws. The error rate of the cuts made by CRISPR is still considerably high. Cuts can end up in the wrong positions. Consequently, the wrong portion of the DNA structure will be tweaked. Given that we are dealing with human bodies, such mistakes are simply not permissible.
With prime editing, the precision of gene-editing technology is brought to another level. Prime editing allows the targeting of particular portions of DNA and performing the necessary editing.
Dr. David Liu, one of the authors of the research, compared prime editing to a word processor.
Prime editing can search for specific segments where modifications are needed, like the CTRL+F (or Command + F) function. Given that there are millions of DNA code in our bodies, it is clear that such capability is valuable.
According to Dr. Liu, 89% of the estimated 75,000 mutations can be potentially fixed by prime editing.
“Prime editing is the beginning, rather than the end of a long-standing aspiration in the molecular life-sciences to be able to make any DNA change in any position of a living cell or organism, including potentially human patients with genetic diseases,” according to Dr. Liu in an interview.
Last year, the first gene-edited babies, under the pseudonyms of Lulu and Nana, were born. Their genes were tweaked so that they will gain HIV immunity. In the process of doing so, later studies have shown that the tweaking might have also improved their memory and cognition.
Gene editing tools will open the doors not only to the capability to fend off genetic diseases. Given enough time and more progress, we might be looking at a future where babies whose genes are edited with enhanced abilities and in accord to how they wanted to look like are born.
But, where do we set the line? Should we be using gene editing solely for the purpose of medicine? Should we be open to the possibility of designer babies being born into our world?
Now that we are manipulating the very components that make up our entire being, we really should start asking questions.