Scientists at the Chinese Sun Yat-sen University, Guangzhou have released the news that for the first time they have performed genome editing in human embryos. The news came as a flash among rumors that had already sparked in previous months of such research being conducted and triggered ethical, scientific and social debates in the leading scientific forums of the global community.
The researchers at the Chinese University released the information that 86 non-viable or tripronuclear embryos were injected with a gene-editing tool called CRISPR|Cas9. Tripronuclear embryos are those embryos resulting from one egg being fertilized by two sperm, thus never resulting in a live birth.
The gene-editing tool is designed to bind and break specific sequences of DNA. It has been advertised as a promise to eradicate hereditary diseases. In this particular case, the scientific team targeted a gene holding the name HBB which is linked to a fatal blood disorder, beta-thalassaemia. It was hoped that this gene would be replaced with new genetic material.Yet, the results of the study showed that only 28 cases were successful, the rest having failed or showing unwanted mutations.
The research was published in the scientific journal Protein and Cell, while journals such as Nature and Science rejected it on ethical grounds.
What is the ethical fuss all about? Those condemning the research are arguing that such results and the deepening of study in the field could result in the unpredictable mutation of future generations, pointing even to a possible new era of eugenics.
Mutations wouldn’t happen only at a genetic level, but also at a societal level, mirroring the advances of science. Creating genetically modified viable embryos could lead to new forms of inequality, discrimination and conflict, argue some of the scientists.
Concerns have been voiced also about the study being extended to viable embryos. Is it moral to implant a genetically modified embryo in the womb of a woman? What about designer babies? The answers to these questions are frowned upon, both legally and morally.
What about the scientific community? It has been argued that while it has proven a mostly unsuccessful research, it must be commended for the advance of science on the matter of genome editing.
The research of Junjiu Huang and colleagues has shown in fact that it is technically possible to break the DNA sequence while looking to eradicate some of the most fearmongering hereditary diseases, but it has never sustained that it may be feasible or safe. At the same time, there is a wide agreement that the technique is not ready for clinical application, thus putting aside fears of the more conservative public.
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