Scientists Use CRISPR to Successfully Edit the DNA of Viable Human Embryos for the First Time

Friday, 28 July 2017 - 11:10AM
Technology
Medical Tech
Friday, 28 July 2017 - 11:10AM
Scientists Use CRISPR to Successfully Edit the DNA of Viable Human Embryos for the First Time
Image credit: Pixabay
In a medical first, scientists at the University of Oregon have successfully used the genetic editing technology CRISPR-CAS9 to edit the genes within viable human embryos. The step, which goes beyond previous experiments conducted last year in China, takes humanity one step closer to being able to fight back against hereditary diseases by simply repairing the genetic deformities that cause illnesses.

The specific results of the study are currently being kept under wraps while pending publication, but it has been reported by Technology Review that both the number of embryos that have been edited and the success rate in producing viable, altered genetic embryos surpasses any similar study that has been conducted in the past.

If this technology is allowed to develop further, parents may have the opportunity to remove unwanted genetic defects from their children, allowing rare cases of hereditary illnesses that severely damage a child's quality of life to be fixed before the child has even begun developing within the womb. In the right circumstances, this technology could be used to help improve the life expectancy of those children who otherwise would have a high risk of genetic abnormality, and allow them to live a normal, full life.

That said, with a technology this potent, the subject is not free from controversy. One of the main reasons why research into gene repair has not developed at a faster pace comes from many scientists' apprehension to explore where this could lead humanity. The most infamous argument—which has been raging for decades now—warns against the concept of "designer babies," with parents essentially building their ideal children before they're born.



In fairness, there is a certain amount of scaremongering that goes on regarding this subject, as the concept of genetic engineering seems mystical and confusing to the majority of the populace. Genetic modification feels murky precisely because it is so poorly understood, which is the reason for a lot of the backlash against genetically modified crops. You don't have to look much further than the origin story of Spider-Man in his first modern movie to see that genetic modification has some misunderstandings attached to it.

There is definitely a lot of good that can be done from preventing genetic disorders at the time of conception, allowing those who would otherwise suffer from debilitating conditions to live healthy lives. There's an even larger scope for the technology's usefulness when we look at other threats to human life—CRISPR-CAS9 technology has also been used in laboratory settings to modify malaria-carrying mosquitoes to make them less dangerous to humans, so in the right hands, this technology could be of great benefit to society.

Exactly where the line is drawn on the subject of genetic modification of human embryos remains to be seen—presumably, the next moral bridge to cross will come when scientists attempt to take a modified embryo to the next stage by implanting one within a mother's womb. Before we get to that step, it'd be a good idea to watch GATTACA again.
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