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Criminals could alter their DNA to evade justice with new genetic editing tools

Professor George Church said medical treatments could be used to alter DNA  CREDIT: SUPPHACHAI 

A revolutionary genetic editing technique designed to repair faulty DNA could be used by criminals to evade justice, experts have said.

The Crispr system acts like molecular scissors to snip away damaged genes and replace them with healthy code and it is hoped it will one day fix genetic diseases such as sickle cell anaemia, cystic fibrosis and muscular dystrophy.

But Professor George Church, of Harvard University, who pioneered the use of the Crispr technique, said it would be possible for criminals to use the technique to disappear from forensic databases or evade detection.

Crispr kits can now be bought online for around £150, and last year former Nasa biochemist Josiah Zayner  injected himself with a genetic cocktail during a livestream to increase his muscle mass.

Asked if Crispr could alter DNA to the extent it would make forensic evidence unusable Professor Church told The Telegraph: “We could do that today, easily. A lot of it is done by blood and even if you just get a stem cell transplant you have a new identity.

“I think Crispr actually would be easier than a stem cell transplant because (a transplant) would have to be done sterrily and you would need to irradiate yourself to get rid of the old ones and that is not something even Zayner would do.

“I could imagine there being an industry. My guess is though, they would start with a bone marrow transplant to some random person. You wouldn’t even necessarily need Crispr.”

How Crispr works



Crispr-Cas9, abbreviated from ‘clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats’, is a hybrid of protein and ribonucleic acid (RNA), which works as an efficient hunt-and-cut system in bacteria.

Molecular biologists Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier realised that it could work well in other cells, including those of humans, to carry out genome editing.

An RNA molecule marks a precise point in the genome thread then ‘guides’ in the Cas9 enzyme, which acts as a pair of scissors to cut both strands of DNA

A new DNA segment can then be introduced to repair a faulty gene, or a new gene altogether can be inserted

The cut strands of DNA then repair themselves, incorporating the new genetic information. If nothing is inserted, the repair process can silence, or ‘turn off’, a faulty gene

Crispr, which stands for Clustered, Regularly Interspaced, Short Palindromic Repeat, is expected to revolutionise healthcare because it is a quick and cheap way to genetically edit genes.

It is based on a naturally-occurring defence mechanism used by bacteria, which carry in their DNA strands of genetic code belonging to deadly viruses so that they can recognise them if they come near.

When they spot a virus they release an enzyme which attacks it, snipping away this area of code. Scientists use the system to remove bad DNA code and replaced it with a healthy gene.

This year the first Crispr trial in Europe is expected to get underway to cure the disease beta thalassaemia, a devastating blood disorder which reduces the production of haemoglobin, the protein which carries oxygen to cells.

But the therapy also has a more sinister side and has led to biohackers like Zayner performing dangerous experiments on themselves.

The growing trend led The FDA in the US to issue a warning against self-administration of genetic therapies, saying kits intended for human use were against the law.

A DIY crispr kit available online  CREDIT: THE ODIN
Zayner, who founded the company The Odin, which sells DIY Crispr kits, now claims to regret his actions and recently told The Atlantic: “There is no doubt in my mind that somebody is going to end up getting hurt.”

Dr Eleanor Graham, programme leader in Forensic Science at Northumbria University said criminals could use Crispr to alter their DNA but said it would require a ‘fairly extreme’ medical intervention.

“I have come across chimerism in samples I have processed for identification purposes from leukaemia patients who have received bone marrow transplants, so it would be possible,” she said.

“This sort of transplantation would affect circulatory blood, not other tissue types to the same extent. I could foresee a future when reference samples from a suspect may need to be tissue matched to the crime scene sample for comparison purposes, if this ever became a reality.

“The medical intervention required is also fairly extreme”

A stem cell injection or bone marrow transplant from a donor would also have the same impact, said experts 

David Wilson, emeritus professor of criminology at Birmingham City University said: “I think there is always a hare and tortoise race between law enforcement and the offenders as criminals come up with new ways to evade the justice systems.

“Criminals have already started in a limited way of attempting to evade forensic techniques by planting DNA at the scene of a crime.

“Fortunately most crimes are cleared up quite quickly, not as a consequence of the DNA database but because there is often a relationship between the perpetrator and the victim. So it would have to be a specific type of clever career criminal who would be attempting this kind of genetic technique.”

However other experts were more skeptical about the possibility of criminals genetically editing their DNA.

Dr Alexander Gray, Principal Investigator at the Leverhulme Research Centre for Forensic Science, University of Dundee said that genetic editing in the livers of mice had shown the new DNA eventually takes over, replacing the genetic code. But he said it would be harder for humans,

“If you were in the forensic database and you changed your DNA it would be possible to avoid detection, but I think it would be extremely difficult to achieve,” he said.

“You can manipulate the genome but to do it on the scale where it would have a forensic effect would be tricky.

“For example if you took semen in a rape case, to have an impact their, Crispr would need to alter the entire germ line.

“And people are shedding skin all the time, so you would need to make a genetic change which impacted every skin cell.”

By:  Sarah Knapton, science editor 

Source: telegraph.co.uk


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