Chinese Scientists Genetically Modify Human Embryos for the First Time in History

Thursday, 23 April 2015 - 1:10PM
Genetic Engineering
Dystopias
Thursday, 23 April 2015 - 1:10PM
Chinese Scientists Genetically Modify Human Embryos for the First Time in History
Chinese geneticists have achieved germline modification, or the genetic engineering of human embryos, for the first time in history. While this technological advancement could present with immeasurable benefits regarding the treatment of genetic diseases, it has also sparked a high-profile controversy as a result of ethical concerns.

In the study, a team of researchers led by Junjiu Huang of the University in Guangzhou, used the gene editing technique CRISPR/Cas9 to modify the gene responsible for β-thalassaemia, a heritable blood disorder that can be deadly. And the attempt was successful, but with several heavy qualifications.

The authors cite several problems that arose during the modification in their paper, including "off-target cleavage" of the genome, low efficiency, and the fact that the resulting embryos were "mosaic." Most troubling of all, they expressed concern that their method could lead to "untoward mutations."

"I believe this is the first report of CRISPR/Cas9 applied to human pre-implantation embryos and as such the study is a landmark, as well as a cautionary tale," Harvard biologist George Daley told Nature News. "Their study should be a stern warning to any practitioner who thinks the technology is ready for testing to eradicate disease genes."

In addition to the problems inherent to the technology, which is still in its infancy, there are many potential ethical problems associated with germline modification. Some of these concerns were assuaged by the fact that the researchers used non-viable embryos, or embryos that could not have resulted in a human life. But detractors still warn that the technology could be exploited for non-therapeutic applications, such as the engineering of a master race of "designer babies," or that the heritable changes to the genome could have unforeseen consequences for future generations. Furthermore, there is the issue of consent, as embryos are unable to grant permission for scientists to change a significant portion of their genetic makeup.

But on the other hand, almost every groundbreaking medical advancement in recent history has been met with backlash, including procedures that are now considered to be indispensable, such as organ transplants. Many would argue that this is the inevitable- and positive- logical next step in the field of biomedicine, and that as long as we're conscious of the ethical implications, we won't be looking at a Brave New World anytime soon.
Science
Science News
Genetic Engineering
Dystopias

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