Genetic Engineering – A Potential Solution to Eradicate Epidemics?

Published on 14 Apr, 2020

Genetic engineering/gene editing, while around for a long time, is not viewed with much trust. As it entails modification of cells and altering the natural order of things, the technology is always under the scanner of regulatory and ethical groups. However, it could be holding the solution to the current epidemic. Using it to develop the required immunity to fight the disease, the technology may well emerge as the savior of mankind.

Genetic engineering or gene editing refers to the process of altering or modifying innate DNA to bring about a change in the physical and other attributes of a living organism. For obvious reasons, the concept has attracted a lot of negative views and criticisms. However, it has been used in agriculture, biotechnology and medicines until now. It has also played a pivotal role in the development of some important vaccines and drugs.

The CRISPR technology is a notable discovery in this field. Based on the natural defense mechanisms of bacteria and archaea, this technology can be used to strengthen the immune system. Research on organisms reveals that using CRISPR-derived RNA and various Cas proteins, virus attacks can be averted and foreign DNA can be destroyed. As the technology is precise, can be altered for use in a range of applications and does not involve injection of foreign genes, it is widely accepted and adopted in biopharmaceutical research to enhance immune systems and responses.

Could the cure for the current pandemic lie in genetic engineering and CRISPR technology?
Research is on in Stanford University, where researchers have devised a way to attack the novel coronavirus. Under this approach, called Prophylactic Antiviral CRISPR in huMAN cells (PAC-MAN), a CRISPR torpedo is directed to attack and destroy the virus’s genetic constitution, which enables it to penetrate human cells and use the cell’s mechanism to self-replicate. Researchers admit that this is only a blueprint, far from being ready to be tested on animals or humans, but certainly a step ahead.

As research progresses, the key challenge would be in delivering the molecules to the lung area, one of the critical organs affected by the coronavirus infection. The Innovative Genomics Institute is working on delivering the molecules for the treatment of cystic fibrosis, another lung disease. If the efforts are successful, the same protocols or delivery mechanisms can be followed for the treatment of COVID-19.

In theory, CRISPR could be further used to genetically edit cells in a way that the entry of a virus is completely blocked out. However, this is still in the conceptualization stage with no research in this regard as yet.

With the use of this technology, genetic material can be transferred across species in plants or animals. However, introducing a gene in different cells can have various outcomes, and the overall pattern of gene expression can be altered, sometimes negatively. The impact on ecosystem can be disastrous as it may create competition for the naturally occurring species. Furthermore, once introduced in the environment, it will be difficult to reverse the changes if problems arise.

Hence, the technology is used only after intensive research and is heavily guarded by code of ethics and conduct. There are various regulations to monitor genetic engineering to ensure it is not misused. However, if it provides the answer to the current epidemic, it could be a boon for the human race.