Should we edit human DNA? This is one of the most controversial questions of our time, and an intense and sometimes acrimonious debate has raged over it.
According to the National Public Radio (NPR), however, one maverick Swedish scientist has jumped ahead of the pack. Developmental biologist Fredrik Lanner of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm has publically acknowledged that he is already gene editing healthy human embryos that could hypothetically develop into a baby – and it’s highly likely that he’s not actually alone in his controversial endeavor.
Previous reports of Chinese researchers editing genes in unviable human embryos, those that cannot develop into a person, surfaced online over the last year or so, with some culminating in a few research papers. In one example, a team attempted to edit these types of human embryos in order to make them HIV resistant.
In any case, this research all happened behind closed doors, and it’s not clear if any viable human embryos have also been used. Some researchers, though, have their suspicions.
On the other hand, Lanner is the first to openly and clearly state that he is conducting gene editing with viable human embryos. A reporter from NPR was allowed to watch as members of his laboratory injected viable human embryos left over from in vitro fertilization (IVF) with CRISPR/Cas9 elements, a powerful gene-editing tool that has set the field of genetics alight with its remarkable abilities.
With its quick and highly precise ability to “snip” out bits of genetic code and replace them with new ones, this gene-editing technique has the hypothetical ability to enhance the human genome by, for example, giving us immunity to certain diseases or conditions.
With this in mind, Lanner said that he hopes to use CRISPR to uncover new infertility treatments and to find out more about embryonic stem cells, the type than can grow to become almost any cell in the human body.
“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's, or different types of blindness and other diseases,” he told NPR.
Among a plethora of other worries, critics of such research are concerned that this could accidentally result in “altered” human embryos making it to advanced stages of fetal development. In order to assuage such worries, Lanner noted that his research group would never let the embryos make it past 14 days of development.
Stem cells, pictured here, are seen by many as the future of medical research. Elena Pavlovich/Shutterstock
A global summit in Washington DC last December made it clear that it is illegal to modify a human embryo that is going to become a person. However, several research groups are seeking approval to conduct gene-editing experiments on viable human embryos.
The Francis Crick Institute in the UK was recently granted approval by national regulatory authorities to do so, the first such endorsement the world has ever seen, so long as the embryos are terminated after seven days post-fertilization.
The benefits of this type of work are nothing short of remarkable. Theoretically, genetic disorders could be “edited out” of developing babies before they are even born, saving them from a lifelong debilitating condition.
However, an unfortunate CRISPR slip-up could inadvertently cause an unforeseen DNA error. Ultimately, this could introduce a brand new disease into the human population. Additionally, “designer babies” with handpicked genetic code modifications falls along the same line as eugenics for some.
“It's not a technology that should be taken lightly,” Lanner told NPR. “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.”
Where will the world's first CRISPR baby be born? Ramona Heim/Shutterstock