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The Future of Healthcare: a Breakdown of CRISPR & Why Teens Should Care

Opinion

August 23, 2023

CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is a gene-editing technology that has the potential to revolutionize healthcare. CRISPR allows scientists to make many changes to genetic information in animals, plants, and organisms, which could be used to treat a wide range of diseases. Not only can it treat conditions, it can make changes to these organisms, improving certain qualities and their life. It can be used to create cancer therapies, develop vaccines, and study genetic mutations.

I don’t want to get too in-detail about the biological processes which are involved in CRISPR, but I’ll be talking about the applications, the ethical issues, and how it can be useful for humans.

On the low-level, CRISPR-Cas9 was developed as a way to edit genes. CRISPR was actually found naturally in bacteria and small organisms as a way that they remembered different diseases and genetic makeups. We’ve altered this to change DNA sequences rather than store information.

The basic steps required for CRISPR-Cas9 to work are designing RNA, injecting the Cas9 enzyme, cleavage of the DNA, and natural repair. Biology students will know that RNA strands are complementary to DNA, so scientists design a specific RNA sequence depending on the genes they want to edit. After this, Cas9 can be brought into the body through injection or other methods. Once Cas9 cuts the DNA at the specific spot the RNA binds to, the cell naturally repairs the DNA sequence based on the complementary RNA students.

So what's different between CRISPR-Cas9 and other types of gene editing like TALEN and ZFN technology? Well, the easiest way to put it is that CRISPR is more precise, more accessible, and less complex. This makes it a lot easier to engineer and use, which reduces the chance for genetic mishaps.

CRISPR opened up a lot of research roads in the fields of how diseases act, how drugs work, and how to treat genetic disorders. Unfortunately, there are a lot of safety concerns when we talk about germline editing and other risks associated with CRISPR, which I’ll talk about later.

Genetic disorders result from mutations in the DNA sequence, leading to bad or nonexistent proteins and, a range of symptoms. These disorders can impact various aspects of an individual's health, from physical traits to cognitive functions. With over 6,000 known genetic disorders, they collectively affect millions globally. The interesting is that most genetic disorders could be solved with CRISPR targeting just one nucleic base.

(Photologic via Unsplash)

Some genetic disorders which are being extensively studied and likely will have comprehensive treatments involving CRISPR are sickle cell anemia, partial blindness, and beta-thalassemia. These affect a lot of people so, its important that we properly test and consider their effects. With advancements in gene therapies, it's probable that we could correct disease-causing mutations not just in individuals, but also in entire populations, therefore preventing the passage of these mutations to future generations.

CRISPR will have an even greater effect on helping treat cancer, especially the genetics involved in cancer risk and genes that mutate, leading to altered DNA and uncontrolled cell growth. Before we talk about CRISPR specifically, we should know that a fraction of cancers can be inherited (in the sense that there’s a higher likelihood of contracting it based on genes you inherit). Some of these are colon cancer and pancreatic cancer.

But for the most part, something goes wrong inside the cell where genetic mutations in the DNA result in different proteins or processes. This leads to the cell either growing uncontrollably or not dying due to apoptosis, which is the body’s natural way of killing cells that aren’t needed.

However, by manipulating the genetic mutations we can treat certain types of cancers depending on the patient and type. This allows for a broader scope of treatments and lets us “customize” these treatments to whatever the patient experiences. Instead of using traditional methods like chemotherapy, we can explore these other options.

Let’s now take a dive into drug development and how CRISPR makes it so much easier and more accurate. The field of drug development has historically been marked by long timelines, high costs, and a considerable rate of failure. The way CRISPR turns this around by limiting the time taken, failure rate, and other negative components.

(Reed via Unsplash)

Generally, large libraries of chemicals and compounds are screened and then tested on animals and cells before they are tested on humans. The use of CRISPR helps make this process more efficient by editing certain genes to mimic the same conditions that could be found inside a human body or wherever the drug needs to be used. This approach is particularly valuable for diseases with a genetic basis, such as certain types of cancer, muscular dystrophy, and neurodegenerative disorders. Besides helping fight these diseases, it allows scientists to learn more about molecular biology.

CRISPR also shows some success in terms of antiviral therapy. This makes sure that vaccines for viral infections are much more safe and effective at protecting the patient. Additionally, CRISPR could be used to design vaccines that evoke stronger and longer-lasting immune responses, potentially reducing the need for frequent booster shots. Some biotech companies are experimenting with the use of CRISPR on Covid-19 vaccines to induce a better immune response.

Even specific cells in the immune system can be targeted instead of the immune system as a whole, such as T cells. By editing the receptors of T cells, we can make sure the cell recognizes and attacks foreign cells. CRISPR is very fluid and offers us a lot of different ways to improve our healthcare.

Unfortunately, there are so many different problems that we open up despite all of the possible solutions to our healthcare problems. I think that there are a lot of things that research institutions, governments, and health groups can do to prevent negativity surrounding gene editing. This involves conducting rigorous studies on the potential risks and benefits of CRISPR usage and openly sharing findings with the public.

Bioethicists must work to establish clear boundaries for the use of CRISPR in areas with high-stakes applications like human germline editing. This is really important, especially since we’re not just running experiments, we’re impacting human lives.

Regardless of all of these things which we do, there are possibilities for danger, such as the ones I will list. Ensuring that the gene-editing components reach their intended destination without causing damage or triggering unwanted immune responses is a critical obstacle. Even though scientists use nanoparticles and nanotechnology, it’s still dangerous and the human body is really unpredictable.

And although the Cas9 enzyme is generally unreliable, we could be editing healthy DNA. The best way to continue using CRISPR well would be to make sure that we hold healthcare and research to high standards and make sure to test out models on lab-cultivated cells and organisms.

(National Cancer Institute from Unsplash)

Teens should care about CRISPR for several reasons. Firstly, CRISPR holds the key to potential breakthroughs in healthcare and medicine that could directly impact their lives. As future recipients of medical advancements, we should understand the possibilities of personalized treatments for genetic disorders, cancers, and other diseases. Gen Z will likely be host to a lot of health problems that we don’t know a lot about, and CRISPR is effective as a future solution.

​​Secondly, the accessibility of CRISPR technology makes it relevant to young minds. Unlike complex scientific processes that might seem distant, CRISPR's simplicity and potential for DIY experimentation could pique teenagers' curiosity and drive their interest in STEM. There are lots of ways to explore genomics and gene editing on your own in today’s technological age.

Lastly, the ethical implications of CRISPR open doors to discussions on morality, responsibility, and the boundaries of scientific intervention. Teens tend to provide a unique perspective on these tools and morality, which we should incorporate into society since teens will be making decisions as they age.

Aryan Garg
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Writer since Jun, 2023 · 6 published articles

Aryan Garg is a 10th grade student at TJHSST, in Northern VA. He is interested in writing, and passionate about medicine and finance. His hobbies include photography, running, and reading.

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