KOMPAS.com – Winner Nobel Prize Kimia2020 is Emmanuelle Charpentier from the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens, Berlin, Germany and Jennifer A. Doudna from the University of California, Berkeley, United States.
Both of them are the figures behind the most advanced gene modification technology today, namely CRISPR/ Cas9.
The discovery of these life code scissors also opens up opportunities for new cancer therapies and other genetically inherited diseases.
However, because of this CRISPR / Cas9 technology, in 2018 a Chinese scientist created the first gene-edited baby and ended prison in 2019.
At that time, what this Chinese scientist was doing shocked the world and sparked ethical debates that are closely related to the use of this technology.
So, what is CRISPR / Cas9 and why is it so controversial?
How life code scissors work
In comparison, DNA is like an important guidebook for tracking life on our planet. Meanwhile CRISPR / Cas9 helps target regions in genetic material.
Reported CNN, Wednesday (7/10/2020), by targeting regions in genetic material, this helps scientists change and deactivate certain genes or insert new genetic material in the region that has been determined.
Cas9 is a modified protein that acts like a scissor and can cut parts of the DNA strand.
CRISPR is short clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, that is, the DNA sequence repeats itself in the genome.
“Doudna and Charpentier show that CRISPR works like a scissors that can be targeted to cut specific DNA sequences,” said Andrew Holland, assistant professor in the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics at Johns Hopkins medical school.
“Once the cuts are made, the DNA code is possible to change. This allows scientists to modify the DNA code by targeting it so they can understand and treat genetic diseases,” Andrew explained.
CRISPR / Cas9 is already carried out in almost all organisms, including plants, microbes, animals and humans.
“What the system does is it can recognize certain specific genes in and fix mutations. We can do some copy and paste or some editing like we edit text. The system can edit the genome and change gene properties,” Charpentier said in 2016 when interviewed by CNN.
Benefits of CRISPR / Cas9
Life code scissors technology has a huge impact on biomedical research, clinical medicine, to agriculture.
For example in agriculture, this technology is used to grow rice, which accumulates lower levels of potentially toxic heavy metals. This technology also helps create livestock with more desirable traits.
CRISPR / Cas9 was first used in humans in 2016 and trials are being conducted in the US using experimental technology to treat dozens of patients with sickle cell disease, an inherited blood disorder.
According to scientists, this technology has the potential to correct up to 89 percent of genetic defects.
“It is no exaggeration to say that the technology that has emerged from the discoveries of Doudna and Charpentier has revolutionized this field (clinical medicine),” said Jessica Downs, deputy head of the Division of Cancer Biology at Institute of Cancer Research in England, to Science Media Center in London.
“We are adopting the CRISPR / Cas9 technology in our lab to investigate the molecular changes that lead to cancer development. This has changed what we can achieve, but there is also great potential for using this technology in the clinic,” he added.
Why is it controversial?
Although it has great potential to change the lives of living things in a positive direction, it is undeniable that this is one of the controversial findings that raises many ethical questions.
Chinese scientist He Jiankui was sentenced to three years in prison in 2019 for “creating” twin girls with DNA that has been modified to become immune to HIV.
She did gene modification with the CRISPR / Cas9 gene-editing tool before the twins were born.
He Jiankui at that time was proud of his achievements. Instead of getting support, what he did was criticized by many scientists in the world.
He Jiankui’s experiments were labeled gruesome, unethical, and a “major blow” to the reputation of Chinese biomedical research.
Claes Gustafsson, secretary of the Nobel committee in chemistry and professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the University of Stockholm, said that any technology that is so powerful is that it is likely to be misused in the life sciences or elsewhere.
“It is clear that this Chinese researcher (He Jiankui) regards the application of CRISPR / Cas9 technology through his experiments,” said Gustafsson to CNN.
“You can’t make heritable changes in human DNA. You can treat certain genetic diseases with CRISPR / Cas9, but not like the Chinese scientists did,” he stressed.
Doudna who created this technology expressed deep concern over what He Jiankui did.
He said He’s experiments are not medically necessary when there are proper ways to avoid HIV transmission.