Although genetically modifying plants and animals has been considered a fact of mainstream science for decades, it’s only until recently that similar processes have been applied to human DNA. Already, there are innumerable advocates and opposers to the processes, especially with the most recent report… editing human embryo DNA
Editing Human Embryo DNA | A Look at New Studies
Now, for the first time, an international team of scientists is reporting that they have been successful in editing human embryo DNA — all without introducing any additional harmful mutations. So long as the science checks out — and it’s been heavily scrutinized by the top researchers already — this could mean a breakthrough in the engineering of living human beings. Now, before we jump to dangerous science-fantasies, it’s important to provide some context here.
The recent trials made use of an increasingly available and accurate technique known as CRISPR-Cas9. In the words of the researchers,
“induced double-strand breaks (DSBs) at the mutant paternal allele were predominantly repaired using the homologous wild-type maternal gene instead of a synthetic DNA template. By modulating the cell cycle state at which the DSB was induced, we were able to avoid mosaicism in cleaving embryos and achieve a high yield of homozygous embryos carrying the wild-type MYBPC3 gene without evidence of off-target mutations.”
Ultimately, this research is aimed at helping families plagued by genetic diseases one generation after the next. In this most recent series of experiments, this gene-editing technology corrected a genetic defect causing hypertrophic cardiomyopathy — a heart disorder causing seemingly healthy people to experience heart-failure without warning.
Conducted using several dozen embryos (basically just globs of cells), nearly two-thirds of the samples had their DNA corrected. The real breakthrough comes through the fact that there were no other negative genetic alterations made, meaning these embryos could effectively grow into healthy human beings. Although none of these embryos were actually used to create babies, future experiments may attempt to do so if these techniques for editing human embryo DNA are shown to be safe and effective.
The Ethics of Editing Human Embryo DNA
The potential to correct a long list of other inheritable diseases is all made possible through perfecting this process. In the very near future, we may very well see similar trials targeting diseases like Huntington’s disease, cystic fibrosis, and even an inherited form of Alzheimer’s disease.
However, the real issue comes with the added possibility of creating genetically enhanced people beyond the use of this technique as preventable medicine. Beyond the myriad difficulties in ensuring these enhancements wouldn’t cause unforeseen difficulties later in life, there are also innumerable ethical considerations that could never feasibly be discussed before these types of studies.
Already, The National Institutes of Health has said they will not fund any research involving human embryos, along with the FDA being prohibited by Congress to pursue similar experiments. Still, this only means the research will continue to be conducted elsewhere in countries all over the world, making this type of medical process a somewhat inevitable reality.
Other critics cite the fact that genetic defects can be avoided in pregnancies via in vitro fertilization (IVF) since embryos can be screened before carried to term, thus avoiding the significant logical and ethical hurdles inherent of editing human DNA for the same effect.
All science fiction and Gattaca references aside, it’s amazing to think that we’re actually on the verge of having to consider the true implications of making genetic enhancements to human beings. It’s interesting to think about how gene-tests might be right up there with employer drug-tests when applying for new jobs. Still, we’re far from those actual conversations, despite what people alarmed by this research would have you believe. For now, we’ll need to continue taking baby-steps… or rather embryo steps.