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What is genetic engineering and how can it benefit healthcare?

Have you heard of purple tomatoes? Or golden rice? If you haven’t, you might be surprised to know that these have actually been created by scientists via genetic engineering. These are genetically modified foods, with purple tomatoes containing 10 times more antioxidants than a normal red tomato. On the other hand, golden rice has beta carotene, that produces Vitamin A, unlike the normal white rice.

But before we delve further into the wonders of genetic engineering, let’s first understand what it actually means.

Genetic engineering refers to the artificial manipulation, modification, and recombination of genetic materials such as DNA. It is generally targeted to alter the genetic makeup of an organism. Recombinant DNA technology is the mostly used term to describe genetic engineering. In this technique, gene from one organism is added to another organism in order to give it a desired set of characters.

Specifically talking, this technique is used to cut and unite genetic material, especially DNA from different biological species, and introduce the resulting hybrid DNA into an organism to form new combinations of heritable genetic material.

The major applications of genetic engineering in healthcare include: 

  • Quicker and more accurate diagnosis
  • More site-specific treatments

Prevention and treatment of genetic disorders

There are different techniques of genetic engineering among which CRISPR is the latest. It is a tool of gene editing that has gained traction due to its precise nature of amending targeted genetic regions. Let us dive more into CRISPR.

CRISPR/CAS9 (Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats)

CRISPR is an RNA-based system and the most powerful tool for gene editing. Since it is RNA-based, it can be modified with more ease and allows for targeting multiple sites.

The concept of CRISPR has originated from "Cas" proteins found in bacteria. These proteins help typically defend against viruses. Scientists and researchers most widely use the Cas9 protein. CRISPR uses a guide RNA that leads the programmed protein to find and bind to almost any desired target sequence.

The combination of Cas9 technology with other techniques has been used to detect specific DNA or RNA sequences and then apply it for diagnostic purposes. CRISPR technology holds great potential to transform medicine. It can not only enable us to treat but also prevent many diseases. CRISPR can even be used to change the genomes of our children. However, an attempt to do this in China has been reportedly condemned as premature and unethical.

What WHO has to say on human genome editing

The World Health Organisation (WHO) released a report on 12 July 2021 about genome editing to provide the first global recommendations on human genome editing. The report highlighted the successful use of somatic gene therapies in addressing HIV, sickle cell disease, and transthyretin amyloidosis.

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