U.S. Scientists Reportedly First to Edit Human Embryo
Smarter Reviews examines the benefits and possible pit falls of gene-editing tool crispr
Ever since the emergence of genetic modifications, there has been a race for new discoveries. For the first time, U.S. scientists have discovered how to successfully edit the DNA of viable human embryos. The purpose is to remove inherited diseases. Editing DNA can prevent babies from being born with disabilities and other incurable diseases caused by inherited mutations. A significantly big step in the small world of embryos.
The powerful gene-editing tool CRISPR has been used before, but now the focus has switched to these specific diseases with the gene-editing chemicals injected into a human egg just before fertilization. So how does it all work?
Altering the DNA code in the embryo means we can eradicate the genes associated with any inherited disorder, such as the blood disease beta-thalassemia. This now genetically-modified child will grow and pass on these changes to future generations. This is where the term germline engineering comes from, because future generations come from an individual's germ cells; the sperm and the egg.
The idea of altering DNA is a controversial one. There is a lot of concern over the concept of 'designer babies.' Consensus in this group believes modifying an embryo to get the exact baby you want is altering what mother nature intended and many do not think humans should be interfering with genetics.
The fear is that we will eventually get to a state where we can order up our own babies from a menu of traits we want them to have. These genetic enhancements may indeed remove harmful DNA mutations, but many groups opposed to gene editing believe strongly that it is not our business to be changing what was already created.
The question then arises, why would we not want to eradicate serious diseases that cause pain and suffering? While we have the best research and treatments for diseases already, if there was a way to prevent children and the human population in general from developing them in the first place, it seems too good to be true.
CRISPR delivers this to us in a simple and effective procedure. By changing the DNA at an embryonic level we can pass the edited genes on to future generations. But, the National Institutes of Health were banned from supporting or funding and gene-editing research in human embryos.
However, due to the number of serious diseases in the world, the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine created a committee that can endorse these editing processes. The stipulations are that this can only be done when it involves a serious disease and when there is no 'reasonable alternative'.
Additionally, there are some concerns over the possibility of errors during the editing process. As precise as CRISPR is, there can still be mistakes and even the smallest mistake can cause permanent problems in the gene pool. The fallout from this could be catastrophic.
If this procedure were to become part of life as we know it, imagine having your baby's genes edited to remove a potential risk of disease, but instead healthy genes get accidentally eliminated. What is the protocol for the lawsuits that would surely be filed? Many questions surround the process now, and these will only multiply as we advance further down this genetic engineering path.
Studies in China also discovered another problem. The desired DNA changes were only picked up by some of the embryonic cells and not others, creating what is called mosaicism. The possibility of this makes gene-editing unstable and potentially unsafe. This explains why the technology is readily available but its use is very limited by legislative restrictions.
Research did conclude, however that the method works better and more accurately when the editing chemicals are injected into the female egg. Clearly the process is not complete, but science is headed in the right direction and new information is learned with every study.
It is not all doom and gloom. There are a number of advantages to the use of CRISPR. The system itself is simple and efficient because of its ability to inject gene-editing chemicals directly into the embryo. This precise application offers scientists reliability and precision, placing the CRISPR at the forefront of genetic technologies.
This same editing technology can be used for animals too with the hopes of protecting of endangered species like the Tazmanian devil. If we can edit their DNA and erase this infectious cancer which is rapidly killing them off, the species can continue to thrive rather than join the extinct list.
Another possible positive application of this process would protect chestnut trees on the East Coast that are severely suffering due to chestnut blight (a pathogenic fungus). With a quick editing procedure these trees can be saved and continue to be enjoyed for generations to come.
Several reports confirm support for the use of CRISPR in making gene-edited babies as well as support for its other possible applications. However, it is only when deployed for the elimination for serious diseases. When enhancing traits or abilities past the realm of health concerns, the risks will start to outweigh the benefits.
As advances in the field of genetic editing continue, so will the controversies and negative reactions. With each side having valid arguments, it is hard to know where gene-editing will end up. What is known is that huge advances have been made on this field and without it the idea of a disease-free human race is no longer just a science-fiction story.
Tom is a lifelong nutrition enthusiast who recently retired from his career in pharmacology to write about natural health. When he isn't researching health products, Tom enjoys exploring local farmers markets and growing his own organic vegetables.