Pandora’s Box Of Gene Editing Is Now Open

December 11, 2018 | In the News, Sports Science

By Dev Mishra, M.D.

President, Sideline Sports Doc

Clinical Assistant Professor of Orthopedic Surgery, Stanford University

Key Points:

  • A gene editing technique called CRISPR offers amazing possibilities to cure genetic diseases
  • It also offers the possibility to manipulate a genome to improve athletic performance
  • A Chinese scientist recently reported using CRISPR to genetically manipulate specific genes in twin girls- a first for human usage of the technology
  • My belief is that two specific gene manipulations are likely to show up soon in athletes who wish to cheat at strength and endurance sports

I’ve written previously about a remarkable new technology called CRISPR and the promise it holds for leading to genetic cures for disease, and possibly gene editing for performance enhancement. With recent news that a Chinese scientist used the technique to produce genetically modified twin girls, we’ve entered a very real era of human genetic manipulation.

The question is whether scientists will proceed responsibly, or whether some rogue individuals will hurtle headlong into ethically questionable areas. Do we aim to cure previously incurable diseases, make designer babies, or find new ways for athletes to enhance performance without getting caught?

CRISPR, or CRISPR-Cas9, is a technique that allows genetic scientists to edit specific parts of a person’s genome by removing or altering sections of DNA — also known as gene editing. A few weeks ago, a Chinese scientist reported that he’d created the world’s first babies genetically edited with CRISPR.

On the surface the scientist’s goals are reasonable, possibly even commendable. The twin girls’ father is HIV positive and the father wanted to ensure that his children would not be born HIV positive. The scientist wanted to disable a gene called CCR5. By disabling the protein created by the gene it’s believed the girls might be resistant to potential infection with HIV and not develop AIDS.

There are several problems with the Chinese scientist’s conduct. It’s unclear how much his university where he works actually knew about the procedure, so it’s possible he acted in an unsanctioned manner. Second, if an individual is HIV positive there are now several very successful medical treatments, thus this is not a genetic disease for which no current treatment exists. Finally, there’s the thorny issue of whether this constitutes human experimentation.

There are many questions that must be asked and answered, but for sure this is just the first of what I believe will be rapidly increasing numbers of similar procedures.

From the athletic performance standpoint I do believe that within the next five years CRISPR will be used for gene editing for EPOR and myostatin– two isolated proteins determined by single genes that can have a substantial impact on athleticism. CRISPR is going to force us to look at performance enhancement in a whole new way.

For more information:  The Sports Gene: Inside The Science of Extraordinary  Athletic Performance.


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