Jerala points to opportunities and pitfalls of genetic scissors

Ljubljana – Slovenian researcher Roman Jerala has labelled the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the two scientists who discovered the CRISPR gene editing tool as long expected. Jerala, who is convinced that this technology will also allow taking on inherited diseases “definitely within ten years or more likely five”, pointed to the ethical challenges involved.

Jerala, who heads the Chemistry Institute’s synthetic biology department, told the STA that the prize for French scientist Emmanuelle Charpentier and US scientist Jennifer Doudna and their genetic scissors would have probably come sooner had there not been for the patenting of the CRISPR technology.

The scientist, who is also working on improvements for the CRISPR method, made a point of highlighting the ethical dilemmas that such gene-altering technology raises, saying that like most other inventions it could be used for good or for bad purposes.

“There are very many ways to use it for good,” he stressed, while also highlighting the negative example of Chinese scientist He Jiankui, who is said to have used the technology two years ago to genetically alter two human embryos to make them resistant to HIV.

Changing cells in a way that is passed on to the next generations is prohibited by international conventions, Jerala explained, saying there had been general consensus in He Jiankui’s case that this happened to soon and had not been done properly.

“On the other hand, the decision will have to be made on whether to make this acceptable and if so under what conditions. Many people have grave inherited diseases that are passed to the next generation and if these mutations can be changed, certain diseases could be eradicated,” Jerala said.

“Society probably needs to decide whether it has the right to prohibit such people from accessing technologies that can prevent suffering. Possibilities for abuse are, however, also opening, with some perhaps wishing to change the colour of their eyes, increase their intelligence or amount of muscles,” he added.