First US Attempt To Make Genetically Modified Human Embryos Succeeds

The embryos were terminated after just a few days. nobeastsofierce/Shutterstock

It’s 2017, and CRISPR – the extremely precise and easy-to-access gene-editing technique – is all the rage. Wiping out genetically inherited diseases and curing cancers are within its reach. Many CRISPR concepts are currently undergoing clinical trials or merely proof-of-concept experiments – including, controversially, on human embryos.

There’ve been rumors about Chinese researchers engaging in these sorts of experiments for some time now, but these embryos are thought to be unviable, meaning they wouldn’t survive into pregnancy. Last year, it emerged that a Swedish research team became the first in the world to use CRISPR on healthy human embryos, ones that would be terminated after two weeks.

Now, it appears an American team has joined in. As first reported by MIT Technology Review, researchers at the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland have changed the DNA of a large number of one-cell human embryos with CRISPR.

This team have reportedly demonstrated that it’s possible to use the technique to edit out genetic errors that will lead to debilitating conditions in later life. As with the Swedish and Chinese experiments, these first American tests clearly show that the day that the world’s first CRISPR baby is born could be just around the corner.

The results have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, similar to the Swedish situation. It has been reported that no unintended genetic errors were introduced to the embryos during the procedure – as has been reported in previous cases, perhaps erroneously, perhaps not – but the specific genetic errors and associated diseases that were edited out remain unknown.

Significantly, as in previous cases, the embryos were also terminated shortly afterwards to prevent them from fully developing into a fetus.

CRISPR is incredibly precise, and can effectively "snip" out segments of the genome to be replaced with customized ones. Perception7/Shutterstock

Gene editing in living humans is deemed less controversial than editing embryos; for one thing, there’s only so much you can edit at this point, and much of the effort is focused on boosting people’s immune systems in order to allow them to fight off aggressive cancers.

When it comes to the embryo, people are rightly worried about designer babies with customizable skin and eye colors, increased intelligence, and so on. In fact, as of 2017, major American research bodies have declared that gene-editing embryos should be tentatively allowed under the explicit order that it isn’t used for “designer” purposes.

In fact, as in post-birth life, this technique should be used solely for the purpose of removing diseases from embryos. Trials like this may be controversial, but they’re trying to confirm that the technique works and remains safe.

If it is, lifelong diseases considered to be incurable could be suddenly erased from existence, and few would argue against that kind of future.

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