Rutgers scientists working on technology that could, literally, change the world

At a Rutgers lab, scientists are experimenting with CRISPR, a gene editing technology.

You might just be hearing about it, but this technology has the potential to change pretty much everything and everyone in the world.

“CRISPR is a programmable nucleus, so the power of it is. And what makes it work so well for gene editing and some of the techniques we use is this protein can use this small segment of RNA to find a site in the genome and cut it. And by making this DNA break in the genome is what allows us to introduce sequences and repair,” explained Peter Romanienko, the managing director of the Genome Editing Core Facility at Rutgers University.

If you think of the genome as a Word document, you’re basically cutting and pasting. And it’s that simplifying of the process that makes the potential for life-saving cures – in cancer, HIV or heart disease — possible.

“You have this linear code of DNA and the CRISPR is programmable, so you can create a segment of this and say I want you to cut here, or I want you to cut there. So you can cut anywhere, and that’s the power of it,” he added. “You can target it to any site in the genome to study any gene.”

While Romanienko says the Genome Editing Core Facility at Rutgers University uses CRISPR mainly to study cells to fight disease, it has also raised concerns among some ethicists, who fear that the technology, available pretty much around the world, can fall into the hands of individuals, or states, that would unleash its power towards not so benevolent ends.

One could liken it to nuclear energy in that it serves a great purpose and is, in theory, clean burning energy, but it can also blow up the world.

“I think if we’re smart enough to come up with a technology, I think we’re smart enough to control it — we should be smart enough to control it. And if we can’t, we shouldn’t use that technology. It’s like a cell phone. It’s a very great tool, but you can’t text and drive,” Romanienko said.

But, you know, people text and drive all the time, and while the law in some countries, like ours, prohibits taxpayer funding of testing on human embryos, private funding is available around the world. In fact, a privately-funded team in Oregon did exactly that, editing the DNA of a human embryo to remove the gene for heart disease. Again, sounds like a good thing, but what’s to stop anyone from editing embryonic DNA to create, for lack of a better term, a master race.

“People have been manipulating genomes for hundreds of years, crossing different plants and animals, livestock, so it’s nothing new that we’ve been doing. It’s just the precision with which we can do it is the main difference,” noted Romanienko. “If you can create it, you have to be responsible for it.”

Scientists have been changing our world since the ancient Greeks. You could say the world has done OK since then, but Hippocrates never had the ability to edit the genome, and it’s worth wondering what kind of world this would be if he had.