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GMO Human Embryo Raises Ethical Concerns

It all started with a rumour. Then just six weeks ago, a warning rang out in the scientific journal Nature, expressing “grave concerns regarding the ethical and safety implications” of creating the world’s first genetically-modified human embryo.

Then last week, a Chinese group from Sun Yat-sen University, reported that they had, in fact, done it: they had created the first GMO human embryo.

They reported that, in a world first, they had taken “human tripronuclear embryos”, and altered mutant DNA that causes the human disease β-thalassemia, which is life-threatening and affects 100,000 people worldwide.

But one person’s stern warning is another’s delight. The promise of technologies like this – to cure diseases like cystic fibrosis or Huntington’s, or even to remove the BRCA mutation, which dramatically increases a woman’s risk of dying from breast or ovarian cancer – have been exciting biologists for years.


Cut And Paste

So what exactly did the Chinese researchers do? And why has it caused such an uproar?

First, the experiments were performed on human embryos. The researchers collected non-viable embryos from IVF clinics. Then they used this non-viability argument as the ethical justification for performing the work. Scientists know that the embryos were not capable of resulting in a human life, because they were tripronuclear. That means one egg had been fertilised by two sperm, a biological situation we know cannot result a live baby.

Into these embryos, the scientists injected “molecular scissors”, known as the CRISPR/Cas9 system, which can target a specific segment of DNA.

In this case, they targeted the HBB gene, which causes β-thalassemia. They then cut out the disease-causing region and replaced it, almost as simply as you may cut and paste in a word-processing document.

But it wasn’t quite that clean and simple. The researchers reported “off target effects” and “mosaicism”. This means the editing sometimes occurred at the wrong place in the DNA and that it wasn’t occurring in all embryos equally. There were many mistakes, which they could not have predicted.

ALSO READ: WARNING: Zika Virus Spreading Explosively

Made To Order?

This raises at least two issues. The first is the ethical issue surrounding the use of human embryos for scientific research, and associated concerns around creating designer babies. The second is the fact that this editing went so wrong in so many embryos.

Without total control of the DNA editing process, the outcome for a baby born from a technology like this one is completely unknown.

This unpredictability and uncertainty means the promise of eliminating certain diseases by editing the DNA of embryos is likely to be a very long way off. There is also the issue of testing whether the technology is safe.

The notion of testing the technology on a live human baby is problematic indeed. Should a scientific research ethics committee ever agree to let this research be performed?

Fortunately, in Australia, all research performed on human embryos is tightly regulated by the NHMRC, which prohibits human cloning as well as many other technologies, and enforces strong penalties for non-compliance. This means that, for the foreseeable future, this type of research is very unlikely in Australia.

While the scientific world is divided as to the possibilities for this technology in embryos, including the reality of preventing or curing disease, there is consensus that this research must proceed with extreme caution.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Britain Grants First Licence For Genetic
Modification Of Embryos

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM:  Britain today granted its first licence to genetically modify human embryos for research into infertility and why miscarriages happen, in a move likely to raise ethical concerns.

“Our licence committee has approved an application from Dr Kathy Niakan of the Francis Crick Institute to renew her laboratory’s research licence to include gene editing of embryos,” the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) said in a statement.

“As with all embryos used in research, it is illegal to transfer them to a woman for treatment.”

The decision makes Britain one of the first countries in the world to grant this type of authorisation for experimentation on human embryos, although similar research has been carried out in China.

The work could begin in the next few months.

Niakan has said she is planning to modify the embryos using a technique known as CRISPR-Cas9, which allows scientists to insert, remove and correct DNA within a cell.

The embryos will not become children as they must be destroyed within 14 days and can only be used for basic research.

She plans to find the genes at play in the first few days of fertilisation when an embryo develops a coating of cells that later become the placenta.

The embryos to be used in the research are ones that would have been destroyed, donated by couples receiving In-Vitro Fertilisation (IVF) treatment who do not need them.

ALSO READ: The Russian Sleep Experiment

No ‘Moral Panic’

Critics have warned about the potential of “designer babies” but several researchers were quick to hail Monday’s decision.

The project should “assist infertile couples and reduce the anguish of miscarriage,” Bruce Whitelaw, professor of animal biotechnology at the University of Edinburgh, told the Science Media Centre.

Darren Griffin, professor of genetics at the University of Kent, said the ruling was “a triumph for common sense”.

“While it is certain that the prospect of gene editing in human embryos raised a series of ethical issues and challenges, the problem has been dealt with in a balanced manner,” he said.

“It is a clear example how the UK leads the world not only in the science behind research into early human development but also the social science used to regulate and monitor it,” he added.

Sarah Norcross, director of Progress Educational Trust, a charity, said: “This decision by the HFEA is a victory for level-headed regulation over moral panic”.

In a research paper published in April last year, Chinese scientists described how they were able to manipulate the genomes of human embryos for the first time, which raised ethical concerns about the new frontier in science.

Junjiu Huang, a gene-function researcher at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, and colleagues describe how they used the CRISPR-Cas9 technique to modify the genomes of embryos obtained from a fertility clinic.




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