First human gene embryo editing could stop genetic diseases

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A researcher at Oregon Health and Science University has reportedly become the first in the United States to genetically modify a human embryo, according to a report from the MIT Technology Review.

According to MIT Technology Review, the DNA of a large number of one-cell embryos was changed with the gene editing technique CRISPR. None of them were allowed to grow for more than a few days, and there was no intention of implanting them in the womb.

But this practice, many critics warn, could open the doors to a Brave New World-like scenario of "designer babies", engineered to produce the most desirable traits. The technology works as a kind of scissors that can snip selected, unwanted parts of the genome, replacing these with new DNA. The third study, revealed by New Scientist in March, got more promising results but it was based on editing just six normal embryos. A bioethical firestorm erupted in 2015 when researchers at Sun Yat-Sen University announced that they had tried to use CRISPR to correct the genes for the blood disease beta-thalassemia in 86 human embryos. They said although basic and preclinical research should be allowed, edited human embryos should not be used to establish a pregnancy.

Some critics say germline experiments could open the floodgates to a fearless new world of "designer babies" engineered with genetic enhancements-a prospect bitterly opposed by a range of religious organizations, civil society groups, and biotech companies. A 2017 experiment, also in China, used CRISPR to edit DNA in normal, presumably viable fertilized eggs, or one-cell human embryos.

But Mitalipov's research, if it passes peer review, would be a significant step for American scientists.

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CRISPR-Cas9 is a tool for making precise edits in DNA, discovered in bacteria.

Dr. Robert C. Green, a medical geneticist at Harvard Medical School, said the prospect of editing embryos to avoid disease "is inevitable and exciting", and that "with proper controls in place, it's going to lead to huge advances in human health". Scientists and bioethicists should agree on rules on what should and should not be done, and then make sure that editors of scientific journals enforce them.

A scientist who is familiar with the project but chose to remain anonymous said: "It is proof of principle that it can work".

'I don't think it's the start of clinical trials yet, but it does take it further than anyone has before'.

In this way, researchers can precisely turn off specific genes in the genome. But it is not clear what disease or genes were edited.