According to a study published Wednesday, scientists have, for the first time, “successfully edited genes in human embryos to repair a common and serious disease-causing mutation,” leaving the embryos perfectly healthy and possibly paving the way for children in the future to be born without hereditary conditions.
However, opponents of such research say it creates great ethical concerns over genetic engineering and the potential for so-called “designer babies,” born with certain traits like greater intelligence or athletic ability. Earlier this year, a national scientific committee recommended new guidelines for such research that limited it to editing out only severe medical problems:
“We’ve always said in the past gene editing shouldn’t be done, mostly because it couldn’t be done safely,” said Richard Hynes, a cancer researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who co-led the committee. “That’s still true, but now it looks like it’s going to be done safely soon,” he said, adding that the research is “a big breakthrough.”
“What our report said was, once the technical hurdles are cleared, then there will be societal issues that have to be considered and discussions that are going to have to happen. Now’s the time.”
The research, conducted by Oregon Health and Science University, in conjunction teams in California, China and South Korea, fixed a mutation responsible for a common heart condition that can cause sudden death later in life; were the embryos to become a living person, the trait would not be passed down to genetic descendants.
More research is necessary before such a gene-editing technique could go to clinical trials, which is also not allowed under current U.S. federal law. However, researchers are excited about the prospect of helping couples who otherwise could not conceive healthy children:
Potentially, it could apply to any of more than 10,000 conditions caused by specific inherited mutations. Researchers and experts said those might include breast and ovarian cancer linked to BRCA mutations, as well as diseases like Huntington’s, Tay-Sachs, beta thalassemia, and even sickle cell anemia, cystic fibrosis or some cases of early-onset Alzheimer’s.
Before you go and rush out to buy up copies of Gattaca to hand out on street corners, experts think that such gene-editing wouldn’t necessarily become widespread.
“Nobody’s going to do this for trivial reasons,” Dr. R. Alta Charo, a bioethicist at University of Wisconsin at Madison said. “Sex is cheaper and it’s more fun than IVF, so unless you’ve got a real need, you’re not going to use it.”