US Researchers at the Oregon Health and Science University (OHSR) are reported to have successfully created genetically modified human embryos, the first endeavor of its kind in the United States that could one day help babies bypass inherited diseases.
The experiment led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov of OHSR involved the alteration of single-cell embryos employing a gene editing method known as CRISPR – clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.
According to MIT Technology Review, the experiment was no more than a demonstration of science not allowing the embryos to develop beyond a few experimental days with no intentions, whatsoever, of a womb implantation.
University of Wisconsin-Madison bioethicist R. Alta Charo said, “This was purely laboratory-based work that is incredibly valuable for helping us understand how one might make these germline changes in a way that is precise and safe. But it’s only a first step,” she said.
“We still have regulatory barriers in the United States to ever trying this to achieve a pregnancy. The public has plenty of time,” she added. “Any such experiment aimed at a pregnancy would need FDA approval, and the agency is currently not allowed to even consider such a request.”
While Mitalipov was not very forthcoming, other OHSR officials have reportedly confirmed the research saying that the findings would soon be published in a journal.
It may have been a first in the U.S., but DNA editing of the human embryo has been reported on at least three occasions from China.
Apparently, the OHSR researchers have broken the Chinese record in their very first attempt at gene editing in terms of the number of embryos modified and demonstrating successfully that disease causing inherited genes could be manipulated to avoid getting passed on to babies.
The Chinese findings had concluded that the CRISPR technique caused editing errors meaning the desired changes in the genes was partial – the change not taking place in all the cells of an embryo – an effect, called mosaicism. This gave credence to the Chinese argument that the technique was not a safe option of producing humans. However, all that changes now with the Oregon findings.
Future births can be genetically modified to produce disease-free babies. The process is called “germline engineering” meaning genetically engineered humans will pass on their modified healthy genes to their offspring creating a chain reaction of healthy genes getting passed on through generations.
However, gene editing is a highly controversial subject with moral, legal and religious implications. The ‘preposterous’ idea of “designer babies” continues to attract strong condemnation from religious groups, biotech companies, and civil society organizations.
The U.S. intelligence community last year called CRISPR a potential “weapon of mass destruction.”
The U.S. National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Medicine said in a report earlier this year that gene manipulation in embryos could be acceptable if done under strict monitoring and with the sole purpose of preventing serious diseases.
Dr. Robert C. Greena, a Harvard Medical School geneticist feels the idea of gene editing in embryos “is inevitable and exciting” and “with proper controls in place, it’s going to lead to huge advances in human health.”
“Our research has suggested that there are far more disease-associated mutations in the general public than was previously,” he added.
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.”
Michael Watson, executive director of the American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics, said with reference to the work carried out at OHSR “that’s the only way we’re going to learn.”
Although research is ongoing in the US on genetically modified cells to treat diseases, Dr.Topol is of the opinion that “in order to really have a cure, you want to get this at the embryo stage,” he said. “If it isn’t done in this country, it will be done elsewhere.”
Hank Greely, director of Stanford University’s Center for Law and the Biosciences, called CRISPR “the most exciting thing I’ve seen in biology in the 25 years I’ve been watching it.”
“Everybody should calm down,” he said. “We’ve got time to do it carefully.”
Dr. Helen O’Neill, Programme Director of Reproductive Science and Women’s Health, Embryology, IVF and Reproductive Genetics Group at University College, London, said: “Unfortunately, the news about the potential ability to correct disease has been eclipsed by the fear of so-called “designer babies”.
“The technology to support research into correcting diseases is readily available and is largely limited only by legislative barriers.”