Human embryos reportedly edited for first time in the US using CRISPR
The scientists effectively corrected disease-causing genes
For the first time, scientists in the US have successfully edited the DNA of viable human embryos using the powerful gene-editing tool CRISPR, according to a report by MITTechnology Review. Gaining the ability to edit human DNA is the first step toward one day allowing scientists to prevent babies from being born with incurable diseases or disabilities. But further success with this kind of research is likely to raise the heated discussion on the ethical implications of genetically altering human embryos.
The research — which has yet to be published — was led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov of Oregon Health and Science University. It involved editing a “large number” of viable embryos and effectively correcting disease-causing genes, according to MIT Technology Review. (It’s unclear exactly how many embryos were edited, or which genes.) The embryos were developed for only a few days and were not implanted. Without implantation, embryos cannot develop into babies.
Human embryos have been edited with CRISPR before, only in China. In the US, this kind of research is much more controversial: there’s even a ban on using National Institutes of Health funding for research using gene-editing technologies in human embryos. In February, however, a committee created by the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine endorsed the use of genetic engineering on human embryoswhen there isn’t a “reasonable alternative” available, and only to eliminate serious diseases.
There are many concerns around genetically engineering humans. CRISPR is a very precise gene-editing tool, but it can sometimes lead to editing errors. So some fear that small mistakes could lead to permanent problems in the human gene pool. There are also ethical concerns: bioethicists fear that gene-editing will lead to a world where parents will be able to customize their own “designer baby,” complete with specific traits.
These “super-baby” concerns could be worked out easily, says Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at New York University. “If you don’t want eugenics, you just draw a line and stop there,” Caplan tells The Verge. Scientists and bioethicists should agree on rules on what should and should not be done, and then make sure that editors of scientific journals enforce them. Research into how to create designer babies should not be published. Or you could have the National Academy of Sciences work with industry and Congress to lay out a review committee and permit funding.
“If America were to take the lead both in terms of working with journals, working with private foundations, with patient groups, and working with state and federal government, I think you’d get collaboration for the rest of the world,” Caplan says.
Engineered humans are still far away into the future. But Mitalipov’s research is getting us closer: he and his team were able to edit the embryos precisely, with “very few” editing errors, according to STAT. They also avoided another problem: in experiments in China, the desired DNA changes were picked up only by some cells, not all the cells of an embryo — an effect called mosaicism. That makes gene-editing unsafe. But Mitalipov was able to “significantly” reduce mosaicism, according to MIT Technology Review.
Some in the field questioned just how groundbreaking the research is. Hank Greely, a law professor and bioethicist at Stanford University, tweeted that the real breakthrough will be when someone actually implants the human embryos, so they can develop into human beings.
HELLO! Chinese already did this. 1st Chinese study was non-viable but since published viable. NO ONE HAS TRIED TO IMPLANT. That’s key point https://twitter.com/JasonUkman/status/890370090293755904 …
Regardless, the research shows just how far gene editing has come — and makes the prospect of engineered, disease-free humans more science fact than science fiction.