Racial Bias in CRISPR Treatment

A recent analysis by Sean Misek highlights that CRISPR has a higher failure rate in people of African descent. This is due to many factors, such as lack of representation in the medical field and failure to account for genetic diversity.

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By Rin Fukuoka

In the past, Western medical treatment was developed under the idea that people of color had “inferior” bodies. Physicians argued that the difference in skull sizes between races signifies how Black people were born naturally submissive. Science became a vessel to legitimize racial discrimination. However, changes in recent decades have proven these racist claims to be unscientific. Though the medical industry is becoming more progressive, many treatments are still affected by historical racial inequality. One such treatment, CRISPR, is often revered as the most outstanding achievement in regard to cancer treatment. Yet, a recent analysis led by Sean Misek, a postdoc at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, proved that CRISPR fails to treat people of African descent.

Cancer is a challenging disease to treat because there are over 200 distinct types. Each one has a variety of symptoms and is triggered by unique factors, and it can affect people of different races, ages, and lifestyles. But all cancers are caused by a genetic mutation that makes cells replicate uncontrollably. Lately, a gene-editing technology called CRISPR has shown promise in cancer treatment. CRISPR, co-invented by Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, is a tool that consists of a guide RNA and a unique Cas-9 protein. The RNA first searches for the targeted genes and binds to them. The Cas-9 protein then cuts out the malfunctioning genes with extreme precision.

When genetic diversity is unaccounted for, CRISPR may identify the wrong genes as cancerous. Even a single nucleotide mismatch can cause the Cas-9 to malfunction. These errors result in a plethora of consequences. If CRISPR removes the incorrect genes, this may cause new mutations within cells that accelerate cancer growth. Furthermore, if the cancer patient survives, these mistakes can often lead to anomalies in their gamete cells that can leave their offspring with permanent mutations.

Sean Misek recently brought this risk to public attention. When he and his team began studying CRISPR's effects on cancer treatment, they turned to the Cancer Dependency Map. Run by Broad Institute, the DepMap is a collection of trials in which CRISPR was used to remove 18,000 cancer-causing genes in 994 lines of cancer cells. The researchers found that, on average, CRISPR failed to remove two to five percent of the cancer-causing genes in a single cell line. However, their observation of the 41 lines using cells from people of African descent showed that failures were about 20 percent more common.

Misek and his team suggest that since people of African ancestry have the highest genetic diversity of any racial group, there could be a higher risk of inaccuracy. Most modern researchers agree that our ancestors originated from East Africa. As a result of this, African people had a comparatively longer time to evolve unique genetic characteristics. When researchers studied 154 chromosomes from European, Hispanic, Asian, and African populations, they found that Africans had the highest percentage (64 percent) of rare genome sequences and the lowest percentage (36 percent) of common genome sequences.

According to Misek, another aspect leading to racial oversight is the lack of African representation in genetic trials. One example is the Genome-Wide Association Studies, a government-run database. These studies scan DNA and find links between specific sequences and their correlated diseases. Of the thousands of studied genes, roughly two percent of the genetic information comes from African people. Comparatively, White Europeans make up 78.4 percent of this database. These numbers are observably unequal. When popular tools like the GWAS neglect to account for the genomes of a whole race, it can have noticeable consequences on the advancement of technology around the world.

As scientists learn more about genetic disorders, they recognize that CRISPR holds great promise in treating them. However, CRISPR currently includes many oversights that stem from long-time racial ignorance in the medical field. These studies illustrate that diverse workers within these fields are crucial to lessen discrimination in medicine. In turn, this emphasizes the importance of schools like Stuyvesant teaching science curriculums to students of all colors. These seemingly minuscule opportunities can carve a path toward improvement in treatment for everyone.