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Green light for genetic modification of human embryos

David | 03.06.2016 08:34 | Bio-technology

A British scientist has recently been given permission by the Cambridge Central Research Ethics Committee to apply a novel gene editing technique CRISPR/Cas9 to surplus human embryos that have been donated by consenting patients undergoing fertility treatment. The Committee’s decision was based on an earlier approval of a fertility regulator, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA).

Naturally, the topic has stirred considerable controversy – especially since scientists themselves urged a temporary moratorium on this cutting-edge gene editing technique. Research conducted by Dr. Kathy Niakan, a stem cell scientist at the Francis Crick Institute in London, promises to bring new understanding about how human embryos develop into healthy babies. But is it worth breaking the moratorium on CRISPR/Cas9?

Dr. Niakan's research project

“Miscarriage and infertility are extremely common but they are not very well understood,” said Dr. Niakan at a recent meeting in London. “We believe that this research could improve our understanding of the very earliest stages of human life,” she continued.

Since around 50% of eggs fail to reach the blastocyst stage and do not follow the proper process of fertilization, scientists are interested to discover whether the factor behind this alarmingly high rate might be faulty genes. Thanks to the Committee’s decision, Dr. Niakan will be able to study embryos for 14 days, but these embryos will not be implanted into women.

Understanding which genes regulate healthy cell division is expected to prevent miscarriages and improve human fertility. “If we were to understand the genes, it could really help us improve infertility treatment and provide crucial insights into the causes of miscarriage,” says Dr. Niakan.

Gene editing controversy

CRISPR/Cas9 is a new genetic modification technique which has already been recognized for its enormous potential applications. It makes altering human or animal germline and modifying food crop genes easier and cost-effective than previous genetic engineering methods. Delivering the Cas9 protein and special guide RNAs into a cell, scientists can alter an organism's genome by cutting it at any desired location.

Needless to say, the prospect of using this biotechnology to alter human genomes has raised serious ethical concerns.

“Some scientists want to see more studies that probe whether the technique generates stray and potentially risky genome edits; others worry that edited organisms could disrupt entire ecosystems,” wrote Heidi Ledford for Nature.

Reports of Chinese CRISPR experiments on human embryos sparked a heated public debate about what kinds of gene editing practices can be considered ethical, especially in case of human organisms.

CRISPR – a new tool for a new eugenics?

The speculation about the potential danger of using gene editing techniques like CRISPR for eugenic enhancement of humans or for making biological weapons returned with the revelation of Dr. Niakan's research project.

Using CRISPR experimentally on early human embryos might seem like the first step to Brave New World’s embryo farms, but these fears seems to be unfounded. Since an essential factor in eugenics was the state-level coercion in deciding who should be allowed to breed for the supposed good of the human race, science alone does not have the power to bring back that type of politics of human reproduction.

One thing is certain – in order to fully assess the ethical significance of using gene editing techniques on human embryos, we simply need more time. That is why the Committee’s hasty decision to allow Dr. Niakan experiment with human embryos might negatively impact the public reception of similar research projects. We simply aren't ready to consider this type of scientific conundrum.

The moratorium proposed by a group of scientists concerned about the moral implications of the technique offers an opportunity to initiate a well-informed social debate about its applications to human health and reproduction. And we should certainly use this occasion for re-examining our opinions about genetic modification of living organisms.

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