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Human Genome EditingAfter two years of study, the World Health Organization (WHO) released two reports on how to use human genome editing safely and inclusively. The editing technology has significant potential to cure many diseases but the drawbacks must be considered, experts say. Human genome editing safety remains a priority and ensuring everyone has access to the technology could lead to significant improvements in the fight against poverty. The process warrants significant attention: It could further inequality but could also be a massive step toward eradicating poverty.

What is Human Genome Editing?

Somatic and germline editing are two primary types of genome editing. Somatic editing is surface-level and can be used to treat a disease with genetic origins. For example, a scientist can take a patient’s blood cells and utilize CRISPR technology “to edit blood cells as a treatment” for “blood disorders.” This genome editing type does not get passed down to any children.

Germline editing, the more controversial type, changes the genome of a human embryo at the earliest possible stage. It impacts all cells, which could affect any children one has in the future. Although germline editing raises significant ethical questions, it does have the potential to prevent several diseases from manifesting in a child. Currently, international policies limit germline editing, sometimes allowing it for only research purposes. If an individual utilizes edited embryos to “initiate a pregnancy,” this would be considered heritable genome editing.

Heritable genome editing makes changes to the “genetic material of eggs, sperm or any cells that lead to their development,” which includes early embryos. Human genome editing safety sparks serious ethical and controversial concerns, thus, restrictions and guidelines exist worldwide.

Considering the Positives

The potential to cure serious diseases is enormous despite ethical questions. Faster diagnoses, accurate treatments and disorder prevention efforts all could be achieved or improved through genome editing, according to the U.N. In fact, somatic gene therapy made significant strides toward treating HIV and sickle-cell disease in recent years.

Fertility and disease resistance could both improve with the technology’s use. Human genome editing can and already is a way to treat or prevent many serious diseases, and overall, improve life for many. If used correctly, in a safe and efficient manner, the entire world could benefit.

Considering the Negatives

The potential is enormous, but so are the risks. Political and social justice issues are very important to consider, especially when it comes to germline and heritable genome editing. Editing could affect the very issues movements fighting for a broad range of social and economic issues raise.

Germline and heritable human genome editing both have ethical and moral questions. There is a possibility the genetic changes can be passed down to future children. It could be used as a way to improve traits in an irresponsible manner and access could vary for many.

Somatic editing also faces challenges. Rogue clinics and “illegal, unregistered, unethical or unsafe research” pose serious threats. Also of concern are “activities including the offer of unproven so-called therapeutic interventions.” Human genome editing safety is a difficult but important task to undertake as the treatment could be harmful if used incorrectly.

Another serious issue to consider is who would receive the treatment. This could just further the medical inequality divide between wealthy and lower-income nations as the treatment is expensive. As many nations with fewer resources have more difficulties with diseases, the treatment will be especially beneficial for them. However, these nations might not have effective access.

How Genome Editing May Help Those in Poverty

Diseases that tend to affect those in poverty because of a lack of treatment could be treated with human genome editing. These include diabetes, alcohol-attributed diseases, malaria and others. Improved treatment from human genome editing could lead to significant strides in reducing poverty. For those with the least access to or possession of societal resources, editing could potentially be a benefit. Other diseases like “cystic fibrosis, cancers, muscular dystrophy and Huntington’s disease” could also be treated or cured.

If properly managed, the impact of human genome editing on those in poverty could be significant, increasing health across the board. If recommendations from the WHO are properly followed and scientific progress continues, the benefits for the global population could balance the risks.

– Alex Alfano
Photo: Flickr

CRISPRMalaria is one of the main diseases that has claimed the lives of many Nigerians. Due to population, social and climate conditions, malaria in Nigeria has been difficult to manage and control. Furthermore, it has been challenging to arrive at a permanent solution. However, CRISPR Therapeutics is working to create a gene-based solution that will reduce the spread of malaria, saving the lives of many.

What is Malaria?

Malaria is a dangerous and potentially fatal disease. It is spread by a parasite that commonly infects a specific type of mosquito, primarily found in sub-Saharan Africa. When mosquitoes feed off humans, malaria is spread. Malaria is not contagious but one can obtain the disease if traveling to a malaria-riddled country. Although malaria is considered deadly, malaria-related deaths can usually be prevented. Because malaria results in widespread sickness and death, it has a severe impact on many national economies. Since many countries with malaria are usually lower-income nations, the disease creates a vicious cycle of sickness and impoverishment.

There are four types of parasites that have the potential to infect humans, Plasmodium falciparum is the kind that if not immediately treated, can lead to death. People who have low immunity to malaria, such as young children, pregnant women or travelers coming from areas with no malaria, are at the highest risk of a case of fatal malaria. In addition, impoverished people with inadequate access to proper healthcare are also at risk. Bearing in mind these factors, an estimated 90% of deaths due to malaria occur in Africa and most of these deaths are children under 5. More than one million people die from malaria each year and 300-600 million people annually suffer from it, making it a significant barrier to development.

Malaria in Nigeria

According to the 2019 World Malaria Report, Nigeria held the record for most cases of malaria in 2018 as 25% of global malaria cases were in Nigeria. Moreover, in 2018, the country held the highest number of global malaria deaths at 24%.

The entire country of Nigeria is at risk of malaria because roughly 76% of Nigerians are located in high transmission areas. Malaria is more contagious in the tropical south as the season can last year long. However, in the north, malaria season lasts at most three months. Studies show that children living in rural areas and low socioeconomic classes are most prone to malaria.

The global community has funded Nigeria’s government well to fight its malaria crisis. For example, the government has received funding for malaria control from the Global Fund. It has negotiated additional loans from the World Bank, the Islamic Development Bank and the African Development Bank. Nigeria also receives assistance from the USAID President’s Malaria Initiative.

CRISPR and Gene Editing

CRISPR Therapeutics strives to create therapies treating malaria, cancer, diabetes and other serious diseases through CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing. CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing is the process by which DNA is edited by precisely cutting DNA and allowing natural DNA repair processes to take command. Corrected genes or newly introduced genes, can help bring immunity to malaria. CRISPR also has the potential to alleviate global poverty and improve conditions in sub-Saharan Africa.

CRISPR and Malaria

To solve the malaria crisis, scientists are considering CRISPR technology to explore the possibility of genetic modification within mosquitoes. This could include eradicating the malaria gene within mosquitoes or simply shrinking their population. Using CRISPR/Cas9 technology, the goal is to control the spread of malaria. Why target the mosquitoes? With international travel and climate change, the disease has spread internationally. Scientists have concluded that the best route to eradicate malaria is to attack the mosquito instead of the parasite.

CRISPR technology applications for malaria could potentially change malaria control strategies. Rather than simply trying to treat the people affected by malaria, with CRISPR technology, the disease could be completely eradicated. Africa will benefit the most from this potential application. CRISPR technology could potentially eradicate malaria, thus reducing the impact on people’s health and on the economy as well. Overall, CRISPR technology can break the cycle of poverty in Africa.

Ella Kaplun
Photo: pixabay

Speed Breeding Technology
While the earth’s rapidly changing climate and growing global population have caused concern about the future of the agriculture industry, there now appears to be a reason for optimism. Researchers from the University of Queensland in Australia have recently developed a new speed breeding technology that allows for quicker harvesting of plants. Researchers have been developing the technology for almost a decade and NASA’s past experiments with growing food in space are an inspiration. This technology has massive implications for the agriculture industry; with it, food production should significantly increase, which will be a necessity since the global population might grow to 9.8 billion by 2050.

How it Works

To speed up the harvesting process, special red and blue LED lights are shone on the crops (which are kept in greenhouses) for up to 22 hours a day at temperatures between 62 and 72 degrees Fahrenheit. This near-constant lighting and precise temperature help speed up the photosynthesis process, allowing for crops such as wheat, barley and chickpeas to grow up to three times faster than with traditional practices.

Crops produced with speed breeding technology also show to be of higher quality than those harvested with more conventional methods. In addition to increases in speed and quality, crops bred in this new way can be more resistant to extreme heat and droughts. To do this, speed breeding is combined with the usage of tools like CRISPR, a family of DNA sequences that allows for the removal of unwanted portions of a crop’s DNA. Such unwanted portions are often ones that cause decreased yield for a given crop; for example, CRISPR could remove a gene that causes a crop to prematurely germinate after rainfall.

Implementation and Implications for the Global Poor

Currently, the researchers from Queensland are traveling to locations such as Mali and Zimbabwe, as well as India, to train farmers on how to use these new techniques. The researchers receive funding from organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics. This funding is likely to have a massive impact on individuals in developing countries, as speed breeding has enormous potential to help the world’s poor. Part of the reason for this is that people can use this technology anywhere. For example, people can power LEDs using solar power instead of electricity in countries where electricity is lacking. This makes the technology one that people can easily implement throughout the developing world.

Global Impact

Speed breeding will help produce crops at a quicker rate so that more people around the world can receive food. In addition to this, speed breeding technology is a sustainable technique that, if growers implement in conjunction with other practices (such as the usage of tools like CRISPR) could make crops more resistant to heat and disease. All in all, speed breeding technology is, without question, an integral part of the future of the agriculture industry.

– Kiran Matthias
Photo: Flickr

genetically_modified_mosquitoes
Scientists have genetically modified mosquitoes in an effort to combat the spread of malaria globally. This technological advancement could substantially reduce the transmission of malaria which continues to have devasting impacts especially in developing countries.

Malaria Facts

According to the World Health Organization (WHO):

  • In 2015, there were 214 million malaria cases across the globe and approximately 438,000 deaths.
  • Sub-Saharan African countries, such as Chad, Sudan, and Angola, are the most at risk for contracting malaria and 90 percent of all malaria deaths occur in these areas.
  • Children are one of the most high-risk groups – 482,000 children under the age of five died from malaria in 2012 alone.

Researchers affiliated with Imperial College London will seek to genetically modify Anopheles gambiae, the mosquito species most responsible for malaria transmission. Using a technology called “gene drive,” the researchers will use a modified gene to “disrupt” the egg production in female mosquitoes, making them sexually unable to reproduce.

However, some mosquitoes will simply become carriers of the modified gene. The gene will then be passed down “at an accelerated rate to offspring,” slowly discontinuing the spread of malaria throughout the population over time.genetically_modified_mosquitoes

In order to test the gene drive, the team identified three genes that were important in female fertility. After diagnosing those genes, they altered them, resulting in an adjustment that “disrupted the activity.”

The genes were modified with the CRISPR/Cas9 endonuclease, a special type of tool that is able to cut designated parts of the genetic code. Having the enabled ability to cut DNA at an exact location, researchers could then mutate them, rendering female mosquitoes infertile.

The researchers are optimistic that the spread could not only drastically reduce the number of malaria cases, but, in three years’ time, local populations of malaria-carrying mosquitoes could be eliminated.

“If successful, this technology has the potential to substantially reduce the transmission of malaria,” said co-author Andrea Crisanti from the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial.

The technique, although only targeting the Anopheles gambiae, could be tested on other mosquito species as well. The team did target other species while conducting their research; however, they decided to focus their efforts on Anopheles gambaie. Their range of testing proves that their “gene drive” is flexible and can be applied to a range of varied genes.

However, it will still be a substantial amount of time before the gene-altered mosquitoes will be ready. Professor Austin Burt from Imperial’s Department of Life Sciences told The Economic Times that he expects it will be “at least 10 more years before gene drive malaria mosquitoes could be a working intervention”.

Naturally, there is more work that needs to be accomplished before genetically modified mosquitoes can be introduced. Safety assessments and extensive reports must be generated before field trials can take place. However, the futuristic technology is encouraging and could dramatically alter the spread of malaria, as well as change the way scientists will attack other diseases.

Alyson Atondo

Sources: WHO 1, WHO 2, IFLScience, India
Picture: Flickr1, Flickr2