Genetic engineering is a technology that has been harnessed since 1972

Genetic engineering is a technology that has been harnessed since 1972, when the first ever genetically modified organism was created. Since then, genetic engineering has been used on plants, animals and humans alike to provide outcomes and benefits which previously would have taken thousands, millions of years, or may even have been impossible if it were left to evolution. With our current technology, is it possible for genetic engineering to completely eradicate genetic diseases in humans?
The first question here is, “What is genetic engineering?” In basic terms, genetic engineering is the process of permanently altering an organism’s DNA to change their characteristics. This can mean anything from changing a species’ fur colour to genetically modifying animals to be immune to certain viruses. An example of the latter is the instance wherein scientists genetically modified cows to be immune to the disease bovine tuberculosis, which can cause fatalities to cattle in large numbers. This was achieved using a technology called CRISPR-Cas9, short for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. (Galeon & Marquart, 2017). Using this method, scientists can effectively cut, copy and paste portions of DNA to their heart’s content without harming nearby genomes. It is a very precise method and has opened a new faster and easier path to genetic modification in living organisms (Hsu, Lander, ; Zhang, 2014). Since this technology was developed, we can not only modify animals to be resistant to diseases, but we also have the scientific potential to keep humans safe from diseases such as cystic fibrosis, malaria and even cancer (Born, 2017).
While the genetically engineered cows are an example of genetic modification in animals, the next biggest step is, of course, genetic modification in humans. One of the most recent examples of genetic engineering being used to help humans combat genetic diseases is the modification of the Zika virus to fight brain cancer. The Zika virus, which is commonly feared for causing microcephaly in babies whose mothers are affected, is being used for the treatment of the most common kind of brain tumour in adults, glioblastoma. This was achieved by identifying the molecule digoxin in Zika virus-infected glioblastoma cells, which induced the death of the tumour cells in previous experiments. The Zika virus cells were then harnessed in order to kill the glioblastoma cells. This is not the only example of diseases in humans being killed off. For genetic diseases such as cystic fibrosis and Huntington’s, which are caused by mutations in single genes, technologies such as CRISPR-Cas9 can be used to remove/repair those mutations without harming the nearby genomes, resulting in embryos which grow into disease-free babies.
The present and future for genetic engineering are looking good, however, genetic engineering is a technology which, like many others, has received backlash for a few reasons. One of the arguments against genetic modification in humans, as stated by BiologyWise.com, is that changing the genetic makeup of humans in their embryonic stage is a violation to their gift of uniqueness. They also boldly state, “There won’t be the joy of bringing up a unique individual any more nor would there be any room for encouraging unique traits or maverick talents in one’s kids any more. This would be a world full of selfish, demanding parents who want their kids to have all the advantages of life programmed into their genes.” While this statement was made on the basis of simple morals and ethics, there are a few other arguments which come from a more scientific perspective. Business Insider Australia released an article in 2015 highlighting some arguments made in a meeting between hundreds of DC scientists about whether or not altering human embryos with the CRISPR-Cas9 technology is a morally and scientifically viable process. One of the examples used was the then-recent breakthrough made by Chinese scientists, where they managed to modify human embryos and cure the fatal blood disorder, beta thalassemia. While this showed that the technique could be used in humans and effectively cure genetic diseases, it also caused a number of unintended effects on the embryo, causing other potentially fatal genetic complications to arise, as well as pushing more and more people away from the idea that genetic modification is a good idea.
While reading this is enough for some people to turn away from the prospect of genetically modifying humans for the sake of our health and wellbeing, it must be taken into account that this technology is still very new and humans have barely scratched the surface of what can be achieved using genetic engineering. And, although genetic engineering has been proven to benefit us in other ways such as eradicating diseases from beef cows and protecting millions of crops from pesticides, we simply cannot expect this technology to be viable for use on human embryos straight away. The breakthroughs such as using the Zika virus to cure brain cancer and harnessing the coxsackievirus to create anti-tumour treatments such as Cavatak are a big sign that our understanding of genetic engineering is expanding to the point where one day, it will be possible to rid humans of all genetic diseases.
In conclusion, humans have come a long way since the beginning of our scientific breakthroughs, and we have achieved many things. One of these is genetic engineering, a technology which, in the near future, has the potential to cure genetic diseases in humans.