Chinese scientists genetically modify human embryos, sparking ethical debate

Chinese scientists genetically modify human embryos, sparking ethical debate

For the first time in history, researchers from Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China successfully edited the genes of a human embryo.

Researchers said they removed the gene for Beta Thalassemia, a fatal blood disorder in embryos, according to an article describing the experiment published in the journal “Protein & Cell”.

According to Engadget, scientists used the CRISPR/Cas9 technique to achieve this, notably the first time it has been used on the embryonic human genome. The method used a complex enzyme (more commonly known as “genetic scissors”) to cut out and replace faulty gene segments with functional DNA bits.

The research team announced they would not continue the test because the technique failed so often. According to Live Science, 86 embryos underwent the CRISPR/Cas9 method but 71 survived the initial DNA cuts. Only 28 embryos merged into the new DNA out of the 71 initial first DNA snips. A small fraction of the 28 created an effective protein.

“If you want to do it in normal embryos, you need to be close to 100 percent,” Junjiu Huang, lead gene-function researcher said. “That’s why we stopped. We still think it’s too immature.”

This scientific breakthrough caused an ethical debate about human embryo genome editing. According to Nature News, supporters said embryo editing could get rid of deadly genetic diseases before a baby is even born.

The opposing side said modifying embryos could cause unsafe or unethical use in the future. Because the genetic changes to an embryo were heritable, they could have a negative effect on future generations if the embryo was not spliced or cut properly. “Nature and Science” rejected the paper researchers wrote because of ethical objections.

“I believe this the first report of CRISPR/Cas9 applied to human pre-implantation embryos and as such the study is a landmark, as well as a cautionary tale,” George Daley, stem cell biologist at Harvard Medical School said. “Their study should be a stern warning to any practitioner who thinks technology is ready for testing to eradicate disease genes.”