The first attempt at genetically modifying viable human embryos has been carried out by a team of researchers in Portland, Oregon using a gene-editing tool called CRISPR.
The study, led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov, director of the Oregon Health and Science University, tinkers with the DNA of the viable embryos by means of gene-editing technique CRISPR, thereby weeding out incorrect DNA sequences that cause inherited diseases.
Till now, scientists elsewhere have pondered upon the ethical issues as scientists in China were first to explore this controversial practice. The first report of this much controversial practice was reported in China. Wherein using non-viable embryos the scientists targeted a gene mutated in the heritable blood disorder beta thalassemia.
However, major shortcomings of this technique were the off-target effects or mosaicism that included a patchwork of edited and unchanged cells.
But this is about to change, as the study by Mitalipov claims to sidestep off-target effects of CRISPR. If true, then the experiments can be a cornerstone in the journey towards the birth of genetically modified humans.
WHAT IS CRISPR?
CRISPR – an acronym for clustered, regularly interspaced, short palindromic repeats – is a unique technology that enables scientists to alter sections of the DNA sequence. It is currently the most versatile, simple yet precise method of genetic manipulation. Therefore, there is a buzz in the scientist community regarding the multitude of applications.
CRISPR AND CONTROVERSIES
Science is not new to controversies. However, this time the concern is that the CRISPR-ed embryos can pass down DNA to next generation. This could severely impact gene pool of humans in erratic ways.
Dana Carroll, professor of biochemistry at the University of Utah feels that “There is considerable concern about off-target effects, such as making mutations at sites in the genome other than the intended target.“
In other words, there could be ripple or domino effect due to an edit made in one area of DNA. This could be very concerning. Some CRISPR critics also believe that one can develop designer babies having higher intelligence.
Not only this, the US national intelligence director placed “genome editing” as a weapon of mass destruction last year. Though, not all scientists are too concerned.
CRISPR AND DISEASES
CRISPR research has made immense advances. Scientists have CRISPR-ed immune cells to target and kill tumor cells in mice. Although the study was performed in mice, early results are promising and more research needs to be done before conducting clinical trials.
In the fight against herpes viruses, scientists have CRISPR-ed herpes viruses to limit productive and potent infections. CRISPR could show great promise as a treatment especially in disease caused due to point mutations diseases such as cystic fibrosis sickle cell or hemophilia.
Now that Mitalipov’s team have made a significant breakthrough in safely correct defective genes that cause inherited diseases, will this lead to more and more cases of CRISPR-ed embryos?
Possibly yes. A recent report by the US National Academy of Sciences endorses genetically modified children to avoid serious diseases. This was widely seen as giving a green light for lab research on germline modification.
It also supports the use of CRIPSR for making gene-edited babies, albeit with a red line at genetic enhancements.
“Genome editing to enhance traits or abilities beyond ordinary health raises concerns about whether the benefits can outweigh the risks, and about fairness if available only to some people,” said Alta Charo, co-chair of the NAS’s study committee and professor of law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
This makes the prospect of perfectly engineered, disease-free humans more science than fiction.
Watch this video to believe it more.
Stay tuned for more on this amazing advancement in gene editing.