Scientists edit human embryos for first time

In a major breakthrough that is sure to stoke controversy, U.S. scientists have successfully edited human embryos afflicted with a genetic mutation that causes a sometimes fatal heart condition to produce healthy embryos.

Simon Smith | Aug 04, 2017

   

In a major breakthrough that is sure to stoke controversy, U.S. scientists have successfully edited human embryos afflicted with a genetic mutation that causes a sometimes fatal heart condition to produce healthy embryos.

The study is published in the journal Nature.

Scientists at Oregon Health and Science University, along with colleagues in California, China, and South Korea, were able to repair dozens of embryos using the gene-editing method, known as CRISPR-Cas9, so that if allowed to grow into babies, they would be free of disease and would not pass it on to their descendants.

Clinical trials for gene-editing on human embryos currently are prohibited under federal law. But the technique could potentially edit out a wide range of disease conditions caused by specific genetic mutations, such as Huntington's disease, Tay-Sachs, and cystic fibrosis.

"You could certainly help families who have been blighted by a horrible genetic disease," said Robin Lovell-Badge, a professor of genetics and embryology at the Francis Crick Institute in London, who was not involved in the study, in a report by The New York Times. "You could quite imagine that in the future that demand would increase. Maybe it will still be small, but for those individuals it will be very important."

This milestone in human genetic engineering will likely reignite debate over the potential consequences of tinkering with Mother Nature.

But R. Alta Charo, a bioethicist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, says she doubts people will be beating down doors to have CRISPR-edited children.

"Nobody's going to do this for trivial reasons," Dr. Charo said, in the Times report. "Sex is cheaper and it's more fun that IVF, so unless you've got a real need, you're not going to use it."

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