Faith

The Morals of Gene Editing on Human Embryos

What does genetic 'correction' mean for offspring yet to be born — and for those responsible for their care?

Could “designer babies” be a possibility at some point not long from now?

Researchers believe they are inching closer to knowing that answer, even as many wonder and worry about the notion of “playing God.”

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U.S.-based scientists recently conducted gene editing research on human embryos for the first time, it is believed, in this country. The science journal Nature published the findings online on August 2.

“Genome editing has potential for the targeted correction” of genetic diseases, according to the research paper. Scientists used technology called CRISPR-Cas9 — a gene editing technique — to alter DNA code.

“Shoukhrat Mitalipov and colleagues at Oregon Health and Science University successfully used the gene editing tool CRISPR-Cas9 to fix a disease-causing DNA error in dozens of early-stage human embryos,” MIT Technology Review noted Wednesday.

“Until now, American scientists have watched with a combination of awe, envy, and some alarm as scientists elsewhere were first to explore the controversial practice,” the MIT publication also noted. “To date, three previous reports of editing human embryos were all published by scientists in China.”

CRISPR, or Clustered Regular Interspaced Palindromic Repeats, is used to cut and paste new information into the genome. Scientists say they successfully “corrected” human embryos to erase a hereditary heart condition.

“Really we didn’t edit anything, neither did we modify anything … Our program is toward correcting mutant genes,” said Mitalipov, one of the lead authors of the research.

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So could a far more widespread “editing out” of diseases from the human race lie ahead? Clearly there is a great deal of research still to be done — as well as many ethical and moral considerations.

The U.S. researchers used donated eggs and sperm for the study. The embryos were allowed to develop for a few days after fertilization; in other words, these embryos were, by many standards, already human life.

The embryos were not intended to be implanted into a womb and were used purely for scientific work, according to MIT Technology Review — but the use of science to try to alter developing human beings or to create “new” life forms from them is frightening and even heinous.

“Clinical trials would mean actually implanting some of these embryos with the goal of establishing pregnancy and monitoring births of children and hopefully following up with children,” Shoukhrat Mitalipov told journalists.

So more human lives will be used as science experiments.

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“The efficiency, accuracy and safety of the approach presented suggest that it has potential to be used for the correction of heritable mutations in human embryos by complementing preimplantation genetic diagnosis. However, much remains to be considered before clinical applications,” the research article noted.

“Recent developments in precise genome editing techniques and their successful applications in animal models have provided an option for correcting human germ line mutations. In particular, CRISPR–Cas9 is a versatile tool for recognizing specific genomic sequences and inducing [double-strand breaks].”

“Germ line mutations” are passed onto offspring. The genetic modifications in germ cells get carried on in future generations.

In 2016, then-President Barack Obama’s director of national intelligence deemed gene editing a threat and listed it under the category  of “weapons of mass destruction and proliferation” in a worldwide threat assessment.

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