Curing Disease or Superbabies? First Genetically Modified Human Embryo Triggers More Debate

The commotion caused by the latest report of Chinese scientists who attempted to modify the genome of human embryos for the first time in human history, is an indicator of the controversial nature of such endeavor. Journals Nature and Science have previously rejected this study.

On the good side, the gene-modifying technology offers endless possibilities in terms of eradicating genetic diseases that are plaguing our species for millennia, but on the bad side, it opens the door for the creation of a superior race of humans, which is ethically unacceptable for most people.

VIDEO NOTE: Some people evidently think a large handlebar mustache is the obvious first augmentation for future babies!

A CRISPR Cas9 technology is just over three years old, but has such a potential that, after the first trials conducted in a test tube on bacteria, plant, and animal cells, one of two leading researchers responsible for its engineering, Jennifer Doudna, a Professor of Chemistry and of Molecular and Cell Biology at the UC, Berkley, called for a moratorium on use of this gene-editing technique on humans. Many researchers from the USA and Europe backed her campaign. Recently the group published an article in the journal Science, called A prudent path forward for genomic engineering and germline gene modification, in order to draw public attention to the unknown risks involved in the application of genome engineering technology on humans in such early stages of research.

Previously we have written on this subject in the article named CRISPR Genetic Microsurgery Quickly Revolutionizing Research on HIV and Effects of Aging, concluding that because this technology is readily accessible and relatively easy to use, soon we may expect that someone somewhere in the world will be tempted to test it on human embryo. CRISPR Cas9 technique allows high-precision genome alterations, down to the level of a single DNA letter, giving the bioengineers the power to take control of our genetic design. It’s been heralded as the greatest biotech discovery of the century.

Even though all clinical use of genetic engineering is strictly regulated in the US and Europe, there were rumors that Chinese researcher are actively pursuing down this path. A reliable source has confirmed to Nature News that several groups of researchers in China are working on gene editing in human embryos.
On April 18, a group of scientists at Sun Yat-sen University published the results of their research in the journal Protein and Cell, confirming they have successfully edited the gene of non-viable embryo which is held responsible for a deadly blood disorder. By using non-viable embryo (cannot result in live birth), Chinese scientist wanted to dispel all the concerns related to possible alterations of the human germline.

They also made sure to put an emphasizes on the serious challenges they have encountered in their research, suggesting that any medical application of human gene-editing is still unlikely to happen in near future. Scientist applied the procedure on 86 embryos, obtained from fertility clinics, and only 28 of them were successfully spliced, with a “surprising number of ‘off-target’ mutations. Such a low success rate made the team call off their study. Team’s leading researcher, Junjiu Huang, said they think this kind of research on normal embryos is “too immature”.

Any actual medical application of genetic editing in humans would require close to 100% accuracy. The most optimistic predictions, from the technological standpoint, state that we will have to wait at least another 10 to 20 years before something like this would be practically feasible. Meanwhile, the ethicist, scientists and politicians need to find a common ground on the modalities of application of this technology, once it is certain that it is possible to avoid all the traps of eugenics.