Hopes, benefits of cut-and-paste DNA bring ethical questions, fears

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(KUTV) Imagine being able to cure deadly diseases, or alter the plants and animals we eat, for the better.

That is no longer part of what is imagined, but is beginning to happen through a new scientific break through in DNA editing, and a University of Utah professor is on the cutting edge of it all.

But could it lead to something much more controversial? Like designer babies?

They call it CRISPR, a new process that allows scientist to basically edit a living organism's DNA with a simple cut-and-paste method.

"CRISPR can save lives,” said Dr. Dana Carroll a professor of biochemistry at the U of U who is a pioneer in gene-editing technology and co-developed one of the first genome editing techniques over a decade ago.

“It’s a huge break through. It's very powerful."

CRISPR stands for Clusters of Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. Simply put, it gives scientist the power to clip and replace genes at will.

"It's much faster. It's much cheaper. You can do a whole bunch of genes all at once if you want to."

Currently Carroll is among a team of physicians and laboratory scientists from across the country who are using CRISPR to help save patients suffering from sickle cell anemia.

The blood is taken from the patients, and through the use of the technology, the genetic mutation is clipped out and then replaced with healthy DNA and placed back into the body.

"From a genetic point of view it's very powerful. We don't have to wait for nature to generate a mutation that we can study the effect of. We can choose both the site and the type of mutation that we put in,” said Carroll.

And he said you don't have to be an expert to use it. "One of my friends has said it democratizes genome editing because now everybody can do it."

Here’s how it works. CRISPR technology is able to scan a complete set of genes or genome and then surgically cut out the unwanted DNA and replace it or repair it. The technology is also being used in the fight against HIV and other single-cell cancers.

But this technology is not just being used on living humans to fight disease, it's also being used on animals and crops. CRISPR could make them more healthy, visually appealing, longer lasting and better tasting.

"We can go in and in a single generation make a change in animals and plants that will improve their characteristics."

Recently in Sweden someone just ate the first ever CRISPR meal. According to the news article, researchers edited the DNA in the vegetables and grain used in pasta.

So if scientists are changing the genetic make up of plants and animals, what's next? Changing the genetic make up of human embryos? Could CRISPR lead to designer babies - kids who are smarter, more athletic, or gifted?

Dr. Jeffrey Botkin is a medical ethicist at the University of Utah School of Medicine. His expertise has taken him to Washington, D.C. to deal with this controversial issue.

"[CRISPR has] really opened up a lot of exciting opportunities to treat people with genetic conditions that have really not been feasible in the past,” said Botkin.

But when it comes to actually planting the altered embryo into a mother -- that's where Dr. Botkin draws the line.

"That would be a serious transgression. That would be a serious violation of contemporary ethics to manipulate an embryo and allow that embryo to develop into a person.”

And besides, he says there is no way right now for CRISPR to design that perfect baby, because genes for a person's characteristics are so diverse.

"I'm not actually too concerned about that, largely because we have no idea what genes are associated with those traits and certainly not a single gene. You can't pop in a gene for intelligence or music ability,” said Botkin.

Carroll agrees. "It's a danger area because if people tried it right now they would more likely do more harm than good."

But the good that can be done with CRISPR is why Carroll and Botkin still consider it a scientific marvel that can save lives.

Right now federal laws in the United States prohibit scientists from using this technology on human embryos. But the UK’s Human Fertilization and Embryo Authority, or HFEA, has given a researcher in the country, approval to use CRISPR to change DNA in a human embryo. But that embryo is not allowed to survive past 14 days or be planted inside a woman.

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