The technology now exists to tinker with the blueprint for life inside the cells of every living creature, including humans.
Earlier this year, Chinese scientists announced they had successfully modified the genomes of human embryos to prevent a potentially fatal blood disorder. Although the embryos were not allowed to develop into babies, the experiment was sharply criticised by many researchers, some of whom called for
a temporary ban on gene editing.
But despite these concerns, British scientists now hope to do a similar experiment.
Editing genes is possible thanks to a technique known as CRISPR/Cas9, which was discovered in bacteria, but can be used to tweak the DNA of any organism. This method holds huge potential: From better understanding how embryos develop to preventing or even curing serious genetic illnesses, such as beta thalassemia, a blood disorder that can be fatal. The British group hopes to study the former.
Kathy Niakan, a stem-cell researcher at the Francis Crick Institute in London, has said she aims to use the technique to understand what genes are active in the first few days after an egg is fertilised, and how these genes affect the development of the placenta, the Guardian recently reported.
“The knowledge we acquire will be very important for understanding how a healthy human embryo develops, and this will inform our understanding of the causes of miscarriage,” Niakan told the Guardian.
The embryos used in the experiments would be donated by couples who had undergone fertility treatment, and would be used for research only. (Implanting them in a woman and allowing them to grow more than two weeks would be illegal.)
Cause for concern?
But bioethicists have warned that this technology may not be ready for primetime because it could cause unintended genetic effects. Some are also concerned that the technique could ultimately lead to so-called designer babies, ones that are engineered to possess desirable traits like good looks or brains. Critics argue that this could lead to the creation of a superior race of people who would look down on those without enhancements, as biologist Lee Silver argues.
Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, called the proposed research on human embryos “troubling and provocative.” The controversy stems from the fact that this technology can be used for both important research and to produce genetically modified humans, Darnovsky told the Washington Post.
Scientists and policymakers will discuss many of these issues at an international summit hosted by the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine in Washington, DC, in December.
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