14th October – Regulating Gene Editing

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry for 2020 has two women scientists as its recipients. The two scientists have pioneered the use of CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) – Cas9 (CRISPR-associated protein 9) system as a gene-editing tool.

In a short period of eight years since its discovery, the method has already made a significant impact in biology, medicine, and agriculture. It is not often that one sees practical applications of scientific findings in such a short time. 

Background –

  • The discovery of CRISPR can be traced back to 1987. This was when a group of Japanese researchers observed an unusual homologous DNA sequence bearing direct repeats with spacing in a eubacterial gene.
  • In subsequent years, Francisco Mojica, Rodolphe Barrangou, Luciano Marraffini and Erik Sontheimer discovered CRISPR and showed it to be a bacterial adaptive immune system and to act on DNA targets.
  • A notable discovery on the use of CRISPR as a gene-editing tool was by a Lithuanian biochemist, Virginijus Šikšnys, in 2012. Šikšnys showed that Cas9 could cut purified DNA in a test tube, the same discovery for which both Charpentier and Doudna were given the credit.

Controversies around the world –

  • In India, there is a long way to go before realising the utility of gene editing for therapeutic applications. That said, we cannot be complacent and wait for a rogue individual or entity to try it out in humans.
  • The world was alarmed by such a mission in 2018 when Chinese scientist He Jiankui edited genes in human embryos using the CRISPR-Cas9 system that were subsequently implanted and resulted in the birth of twin girls. He claimed this was ostensibly to prevent them from contracting HIV, and the incident became known as the case of the first gene-edited babies of the world.
  • Following a global outcry, the World Health Organization formed a panel of gene-editing experts which said “a central registry of all human genome editing research was needed in order to create an open and transparent database of ongoing work”. It called upon WHO “to start setting up such a registry immediately”.

Way forward for India –

  • In India, several rules, guidelines, and policies backed by the “Rules for the Manufacture, Use, Import, Export and Storage of Hazardous Microorganisms/Genetically Engineered Organisms or Cells, 1989” notified under the Environment Protection Act, 1986, regulate genetically modified organisms.
  • The above Act and the National Ethical Guidelines for Biomedical and Health Research involving human participants, 2017, by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), and the Biomedical and Health Research Regulation Bill implies regulation of the gene-editing process.
  • This is especially so in the usage of its language “modification, deletion or removal of parts of heritable material”. However, there is no explicit mention of the term gene editing.

Conclusion –

It is time that India came up with a specific law to ban germline editing and put out guidelines for conducting gene-editing research giving rise to modified organisms.

SourceThe Hindu

QUESTION – The Nobel Prize in Chemistry has recognised the scientific advancement in gene editing techniques. However, a dirty side of the technique alarms us and calls for effective regulation of the gene editing tools in India. Comment.

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