A team of researchers in Portland, Oregon, has made the first known attempt in the U.S. to genetically modify human embryos. The aim of the effort was to prove that it is possible to safely and effectively correct defective genes that can cause inherited diseases. The research was led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov of Oregon Health and Science University. Scientists used CRISPR gene-editing technology to change the DNA of one-cell embryos. The embryos were created using the donated sperm of men carrying inherited disease mutations. They were allowed to develop for only a few days and the researchers claim they detected no unwanted effects. Chinese scientists have also reported editing DNA in embryos but they reported that CRISPR caused editing errors and that the desired DNA changes were not taken up by all the cells of an embryo, an effect known as mosaicism. That led many in the scientific community to argue that “germline editing” in humans would be unsafe. Germline editing is the modification of genes that can be passed down to future descendants. Opponents of modifying genomes also argue that it dangerous because there is now way to know all the ways it could affect the individual. Proponents of germline editing, have maintained that it could potentially decrease, or even eliminate, serious genetic diseases. MIT Technology Review explains that Mitlipov’s research is only “proof of principle” that germline gene editing can be done without the undesired effects other scientists have witnessed. They seem to have overcome those by injecting CRISPR into the eggs at the same time they were fertilized. That is a technique that another researcher had successfully used to edit the genes of mice. Tony Perry of Bath University changed their genetically predisposed fur color from brown to white. Perry’s use of gene editing brings up another highly controversial issue – designer babies. That is the modification of DNA to get desired traits or enhance abilities, like blue eyes or higher intelligence. In the U.S., any effort to turn an edited IVF embryo into a baby is illegal, but that is not the case in all countries. The revelation from this new research means that it may not be long before one of those countries introduces the world to the first CRISPR babies. (Sources: National Geographic, Technology Review)
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