7 ways CRISPR is about to change our world

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7 ways CRISPR is about to change our world

Would you eliminate cancer if you had the power to do it? How about ridding the world of HIV or wiping out Zika-carrying mosquitos? CRISPR, a new gene editing technique helping scientists snip out unwanted DNA fragments with surgical precision, promises to do just that — and it could radically change our world in the very near future.

This new technology could touch everything from the way we treat disease to even our food supply. However, it has some potential risk and there are reasons to be concerned about editing the human germ line. But, the possibilities seem endless and to some scientists those risks are worth the reward. Let’s go through the biggest ways this technology is about to change our world.

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It will strengthen food crops

Scientists can eliminate anything from unwanted browning in mushrooms to weaknesses in food crops prone to bugs and disease using CRISPR and that could make it one of the the most quickly adopted technologies to ever hit the food industry as CRISPR’d food could up production while eliminating the need for harmful pesticides.

The USDA has already said it would not regulate CRISPR’d food. However, it’s unclear how the public will receive it. There’s already a lot of backlash against genetically modified foods. However, CRISPR’d food isn’t genetically modified, it is genetically snipped — meaning no genes from potentially harmful species are added to the crops. Instead, genes are simply snipped out using the Cas9 enzyme.

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It could cure cancer

Using CRISPR on humans is still very controversial but the gene-editing tool could improve cancer immunotherapy or even cut out the gene-causing cancer cells before they start wreaking havoc on your body.

In 2016, the National Institutes of Health green lit a study involving CRISPRing out three different kinds of cancers on humans.

The small trial was funded by none other than famous internet billionaire Sean Parker and spearheaded by scientists at the University of Pennsylvania.

However, we won’t know the results for quite some time as the study is still waiting on approval from the FDA.

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Wipe out Zika-carrying mosquitos

While science has a few tricks to eradicating the Zika-carrying Aedes aegypti mosquito, CRISPR could single-handedly kill the species in one generation.

We certainly have the technology to do this right now, but the idea is controversial. One argument against it is that it could create an unforeseen ecological disaster. We don’t fully understand the role mosquitos play in the environment (if any) but simply wiping them out without knowing could have dire consequences.

Of course, the flip of that Aedes aegypti is not native to North America and it would be okay to get rid of them.

Another argument against using CRISPR to wipe out the bug is that it could inadvertently create a super mosquito immune to the technique or that the defective mosquito DNA could somehow jump to other insects and cause an ecological disaster.

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Engineer better drugs

CRISPR could give us more targeted drugs with the ability to modify cells within the body.

Last year, Bayer struck a deal with CRISPR Therapeutics, the startup founded by one half of the pioneering team that discovered the Cas9 technology Emmanuelle Charpentiere, to create drugs using the technology.

Other drug companies soon followed, opening the door to creating better drugs for rare, inherited diseases and creating a revolution in the pharmaceuticals industry.

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Heal the blind

Late last fall, scientists released the first study showing CRISPR could potentially heal the blind. The gene-editing tool was used in rats to replace faulty genetics causing blindness with a working set of healthy genes.

The study, conducted at the Salk Institute in California, resulted in a partial restoration of sight.

In another study at Columbia University and the University of Iowa earlier in 2016, scientists were able to show they could successfully cure a person born with a genetic defect leading to blindness using CRISPR technology.

Though this was just one person, it demonstrated those born blind or with a genetically inherited disease causing blindness later in life could potentially one day have their vision restored.

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Eliminate HIV

Right now patients with the deadly virus must use a toxic concoction of anti-retroviral medications to suppress the HIV from replicating and becoming full-blown AIDS. However, a recent study involving mice showed CRISPR/Cas9 can be programmed to chop out any genetic code in the body with scissor-like precision, including, possibly, all HIV-1 DNA within the body. And if you cut out the DNA, you stop the virus from being able to make copies of itself.

The next stage would be to repeat the study in primates and then humans.

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Snip out genetically inherited diseases before babies are born

This week scientists from Oregon Health and Science University published a paper showing they could successfully use CRISPR to wipe out a genetically inherited heart mutation in human embryos. The embryos were only allowed to grow for a few days, but the technology produced a positive outcome.

This was the first time scientists had used CRISPR on human embryos in the U.S. and the first time scientists could demonstrate CRISPR could produce healthy embryos using the technology — adding to the hope CRISPR could one day be used to wipe out a number of genetically inherited diseases before humans are even born.

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