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article imageOutdated law makes gene-editing using CRISPR illegal in Canada

By Karen Graham     Nov 22, 2017 in Health
Toronto - Canada is among the few countries in the world where working with the CRISPR gene-editing system is illegal under the Assisted Human Reproduction Act (AHRA). Not only is it illegal, but doing so could land you behind bars.
CRISPR, pronounced "crisper," is a simple yet powerful tool for editing genomes. It allows researchers to easily alter DNA sequences and modify gene function. The protein Cas9 (or "CRISPR-associated") is an enzyme that acts like a pair of molecular scissors, capable of cutting strands of DNA.
CRISPR and targeted genome editing have opened a new era in molecular biology. The technology has given researchers an efficient and reliable way to make precise, targeted changes to the genome of living cells, and this has been a long-standing goal of biomedical research.
CRISPR -  revolutionary new tool to cut and splice DNA.
CRISPR - revolutionary new tool to cut and splice DNA.
Illustration courtesy of Jennifer Doudna/UC Berkeley
Canadian scientists have been left out of the conversation on CRISPR gene-editing, and that is a real shame. By the end of 2014, some 1000 research papers had been published that mentioned CRISPR.
The technology had been used to functionally inactivate genes in human cell lines and cells, to study Candida albicans, to modify yeasts used to make biofuels and to genetically modify crop strains. CRISPR can also be used to change mosquitoes so they cannot transmit diseases such as malaria.
The two faces of CRISPR technology
CRISPR is one of the most exciting yet controversial technologies in health sciences today. On the one hand, it has the potential to alter the genetic content of cells, potentially preventing inherited diseases. Research was done in 2015 at Canada's Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, where researchers used CRISPR technology to correct the mutation that causes Duchenne muscular dystrophy.
Sooam Biotech clones many animals  including cattle and pigs for medical research and breed preserva...
Sooam Biotech clones many animals, including cattle and pigs for medical research and breed preservation, but is best known for its commercial dog service
Jung Yeon-Je, AFP
Yet, on the other hand, there is the fear the technology will be used to create genetically enhanced humans, The potential of the technology is huge and the theoretical risks this could play into creating designer humans also bring up the distasteful case for eugenics and cloning.
However, despite fears of the technology being used in the wrong way, on November 8, one major Canadian science group announced it wants the country's law on CRISPR gene-editing changed, calling on the federal government to lift the prohibition and allow researchers to alter the genome of inheritable “germ” cells and embryos.
Canada's Assisted Human Reproduction Act
Even though CRISPR technology is allowed to be used in the United States, it is still illegal to use gene-editing techniques to make genetic alterations that can be passed on to future generations. This is an important distinction because, in the U.S., scientists are still allowed to conduct experiments that include genetically altering embryos - as long as those embryos never become babies.
However, in Canada, under the federal AHRA law, even basic research that could be categorized as "gene-editing" is illegal, with penalties of up to 10 years in jail. The focus by scientists and ethicists is one a key provision of the 13-year-old AHRA that makes it a crime to alter the genome of a cell or embryo that’s capable of being transmitted to descendants.
The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto  Canada used CRISPR technology to correct the mutation tha...
The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Canada used CRISPR technology to correct the mutation that causes Duchenne muscular dystrophy.
Hospital for Sick Children
“Scientists here feel left behind,” Vardit Ravitsky, a University of Montreal bioethicist, told Gizmodo. “They have the technical capacity to do this research and they have these good research questions. The only reason they’re not doing it is legal.”
“The main logic here is a slippery slope logic. If you allow us to genetically alter an embryo for research, what’s next?” said Ravitsky. “But embryos don’t fall by chance into a uterus. By banning research you are banning research that is not just about making babies. This research can promote our understanding of reproductive development, of the development of diseases. It makes no sense to say no to research.”
Ravitsky thinks Canada should have a law closer to the one in the U.S. where research is allowed, but altered embryos are not allowed to be implanted into the uterus. “In a few years, if we decide it’s safe and we want to move ahead with the first gene-edited pregnancy, we can decide then,” she said. “We don’t have to decide now.”
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