Scientists in China have created the first genetically modified human embryos shocking the world.
Researchers at Sun Yet-sen University in Guangzhou, China are reported to be the first to have successfully edited the genes of a human embryo using the CRISPR/Cas9 technique. Their aim was to use the technique to to cut out the HBB gene which causes a fatal blood disease known as beta-thalassaemia. This is the first time CRISPR/Cas9 has been used on a human embryonic genome; it’s a technique which uses an enzyme which acts as “genetic scissors” to cut out and replace targeted segments of DNA.
Gene therapy in adults and children while still experimental, is currently being studied broadly across the globe. This sort of therapy aims to fix faulty genes which cause diseases. In an embryo, however, the repair is called germline editing and would not only cause a permanent change in the future human, but also be passed on to any future generations.
Germline editing may be a way to stop some diseases, it’s true. The problem, however, is that any mistakes made would be permanent, maybe even leading to consequences even worse than the disease being targeted. There are reports of gene therapy causing leukemia, for example. It also triggers fears by people who are against eugenics and the possibility for designer babies in the effort to “improve” the life of our children and the human race.
In a statement, the Center for Genetics and Society said, “Human germline modification is widely considered unethical for both safety and social reasons.” The techniques for germline modification is prohibited for creating humans in more than 40 countries and several international human rights treaties, as well. “We are humans, not transgenic rats,” Edward Lanphier, chairman of the Alliance for Regenerative Medicine wrote in Nature. “We believe there is a fundamental ethical issue in crossing the boundary to modifying the human germ line.”
While some people will surely go nuts about the news of GMO human embryos, most of us can rest assured that the embryos used for this experiment would not have survived anyway, as they were fertilized by two sperm. Eventually, the study was called off because the technique failed too often. With a total of 86 embryos used in the study, 71 survived the snipping from CRISPR, only 28 successfully integrated the new DNA and only a small number of those were able to generate a functional protein. “If you want to do it in normal embryos, you need to be close to 100 percent,” lead researcher Junjiu Huang said in Nature. “That’s why we stopped. We still think it’s too immature.” Their findings were published in Protein & Cell.