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The era of human gene editing has begun

Genetics experiments now being done on human embryos in the US spark an ethical outcry

The era of human gene editing has begun

Scientists in Portland, Ore., just succeeded in creating the first genetically modified human embryo in the United States, according to Technology Review. A team led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov of Oregon Health & Science University is reported to “have broken new ground both in the number of embryos experimented upon and by demonstrating that it is possible to safely and efficiently correct defective genes that cause inherited diseases.”

The U.S. team’s results follow two trials — one last year and one in April — by researchers in China who injected genetically modified cells into cancer patients. The research teams used CRISPR, a new gene-editing system derived from bacteria that enables scientists to edit the DNA of living organisms.

In the short term, scientists are planning clinical trials to use CRISPR to edit human genes linked to cystic fibrosis and other fatal hereditary conditions. But supporters of synthetic biology talk up huge potential long-term benefits. We could, they claim, potentially edit genes and build new ones to eradicate all hereditary diseases. With genetic alterations, we might be able to withstand anthrax attacks or epidemics of pneumonic plague. We might revive extinct species such as the woolly mammoth. We might design plants that are far more nutritious, hardy and delicious than what we have now.

But developments in gene editing are also highlighting a desperate need for ethical and legal guidelines to regulate in vitro genetic editing — and raising concerns about a future in which the well-off could pay for CRISPR to perfect their offspring. We will soon be faced with very difficult decisions about when and how to use this breakthrough medical technology. For example, if your unborn child were going to have a debilitating disease that you could fix by taking a pill to edit their genome, would you take the pill? How about adding some bonus intelligence? Greater height or strength? Where would you draw the line?

CRISPR’s potential for misuse by changing inherited human traits has prompted some genetic researchers to call for a global moratorium on using the technique to modify human embryos. Such use is a criminal offense in 29 countries, and the United States bans the use of federal funds to modify embryos.

Still, CRISPR’s seductiveness is beginning to overtake the calls for caution.

This article continues at [Washington Post] If you could ‘design’ your own child, would you?

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