Gene editing has become so prevalent in science fiction it is almost its own genre. In the film Perfect, a young man is sent to a clinic after a tragic incident, where patients are wildly transformed using genetic engineering in the pursuit of perfection. But how far away are we from this reality?
Genome editing is not a new technology; it’s been around for decades. But it has only recently taken off in the scientific world because of the new tool called CRISPR-Cas9. CRISPR-Cas9 is a simpler, faster, cheaper and more efficient way to genetically engineer organisms. In a process called somatic gene editing, scientists are exploring ways to treat diseases caused by a single mutated gene such as cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s, and sickle cell disease. The patient’s cells in the affected tissues are either edited within the body or edited outside and returned to the patient. In both cases, the corrections would not be passed on to offspring.
The most widely debated research involves so-called germline gene editing. This process would alter sperm, eggs, and early-stage embryos to protect a child against inheritable diseases such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and forms of cancer. However, not only has there been an interest in therapeutic and medical applications, but there has also been interest in applications not aimed at “curing” disease but rather altering human performance who are deemed otherwise “healthy.” What CRISPR-Cas9 can do that technology couldn’t before is produce embryos with particular genes associated with desirable traits such as higher intelligence, concentration or memory. In theory, CRISPR-Cas9 would allow parents to insert genes for as many desirable traits as they liked into the genome of their child. These genes could also be passed down to future generations and have unknown consequences.
There are many debates and discussions over this controversial technology and we don’t yet have the technology seen in Perfect to choose whatever desired traits we want and change ourselves to be “perfect”. The technology is rapidly changing and what was once thought of as science fiction is slowly becoming reality. With this new technology, we need to start deciding as a society what the limitations and boundaries should be.
On 15 May 2019, Perfect premiered at the Prince Charles Cinema and Stratford Picturehouse, kicking off the 19th annual Sci-Fi London Film Festival. The Biochemical Society took part at the festival, providing an introduction to the themes explored in this film. Our thanks go to Güneş Taylor, a post-doctoral fellow from the Lovell-Badge Lab at The Francis Crick Institute, for presenting the science around human enhancement to the audience.
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By Charlotte Mugliston and Katie Crabb, The Biochemical Society