While gene editing has been in the works for a while, the last seven years have seen major developments in our ability to specifically edit DNA in living cells
It is not without controversy. Recent claims that human embryos in China had been genetically edited and had resulted in twin babies prompted widespread condemnation from scientists, as well as discussions about safety and ethics and calls for effective regulation.
But as a technology, the ability to alter a gene in a living cell offers many potential benefits, including treating inherited diseases, understanding what specific genes do, generating more resilient crops and even detecting species in the environment.
“The field is amazing,” says Jane Farrar, a professor of genetics at Trinity College Dublin. “I have had some very late nights updating my lecture slides for undergraduates, because so much in gene technology is happening so quickly.”
Gene editing – which directly changes the “letters” of the genome – is becoming more of a feature of gene therapy, notes Farrar, but it is the new kid on the block. “The ability to edit specific genes in living cells is relatively new,” she says. “That means many forms of gene therapy that have by now reached the clinic or are under late-stage development don’t use these new gene-editing techniques. They deliver the gene into the cell, rather than correcting or editing the DNA,” she notes.
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