First editing of human embryos carried out in United States

Ellen Mills
July 28, 2017

One prominent genetics expert, Dr. Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute in La Jolla, California, said gene editing of embryos is "an unstoppable, inevitable science, and this is more proof it can be done".

Scientists in the US have taken a first step toward genetically modified humans.

The feat, led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov from Oregon Health & Science University, is viewed with trepidation by medical ethicists and some scientists, including those who developed the CRISPR technology.

CRISPR works as a type of molecular scissors that can selectively trim away unwanted parts of the genome, and replace it with new stretches of DNA.Scientists in China have published identical studies with mixed result. The embryos were not allowed to develop beyond a very early stage. The study has demonstrated that it is possible to safely correct abnormal genes that cause hereditary diseases, and used quite a number of human embryos to experiment on.

Some critics say germline experiments could open the floodgates to a courageous new world of "designer babies" engineered with genetic enhancements-a prospect bitterly opposed by a range of religious organizations, civil society groups, and biotech companies. The publication first reported the news on Wednesday.

And earlier this year in the USA, the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Medicine said in a report that altering the genes of embryos might be OK if done under strict criteria and aimed at preventing serious disease. "Research embryos" that are "not to be transferred for possible implantation" are "not a big deal", he argued. The only previous work like this has been reported in China.

In theory, the technique could also be used to create "designer" babies with specific desirable qualities, such as eye color or strength, and possibly even greater intelligence, a prospect that has sparked a lively ethical debate in the scientific community and beyond. Along with the National Academy of Medicine, the academy stated that scientific advances make gene editing in human reproductive cells "a realistic possibility that deserves serious consideration".

CRISPR-Cas9 is a tool for making precise edits in DNA, discovered in bacteria. "I don't think it's the start of clinical trials yet, but it does take it further than anyone has before".

A recent report on genome editing from the National Academies did not call for a moratorium on research into germline editing, arguing that it might one day be a way for some parents to have healthy, biological children, such as when both mother and father carry genetic mutations that cause severe diseases.

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