Earlier this year we reported that British scientists had been given the go ahead to begin gene editing on human embryos.
Assistant Professor Fredrik Lanner of the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm has beaten these scientists to the punch, and in a world-first has already attempted to edit the genome of a healthy embryo.
Using Crispr-Cas9, a gene-editing technology first developed by Martin Jinek and his team in 2012 to investigate bacterial immunity, Lanner can precisely manipulate the manifestation of different genes by switching faulty or undesirable elements of DNA with healthy or approved elements. In this case, he will be systematically removing genes which have previously been identified as playing a crucial role in normal embryonic development. He will not reveal the identity of these genes until all the research is complete.
According to NPR, this controversial step was taken in order to learn more about how genes regulate early embryonic development. Findings from this research could eventually help to reduce cases of miscarriage and infertility, as well as increase our understanding of embryonic stem cells.
“If we can understand how these early cells are regulated in the actual embryo, this knowledge will help us in the future to treat patients with diabetes, or Parkinson, or different types of blindness and other diseases,” he says. “That’s another exciting area of research.”
He has already injected dozens of embryos with Crispr but is still refining his technique.
Despite the potential medical advances which could be discovered as a result of this study, there are very strong concerns regarding whether such research is ethical. Such fears include the potential for creating ‘designer babies’, children who’s traits have been selected and approved prior to birth, and that altering DNA could introduce entirely new diseases and genetic conditions which will then spread through the population.
Although Lanner appears to share these fears, he argues that the potential benefits of such work far outweigh the risks. In an attempt to allay some of these concerns has declared that no embryo would be allowed to develop past 14 days old.
“It’s not a technology that should be taken lightly. So I really, of course, stand against any sort of thoughts that one should use this to design designer babies or enhance for aesthetic purposes… I think it’s wise to be allowed to do fundamental research so we can gain more information about this technology and potentially use it in the future”
This research is in the very early stages of development, but with the British scientists soon to begin their own study, it may not be long until hundreds of studies of this ilk are being conducted all over the world. From there, it is difficult to see where the journey would end.
Could we expect to end up in a world free of disease, miscarriage and genetic abnormalities, or are we at risk of making ‘Beggars in Spain‘ a reality? Only time will tell.