Human Embryos Genetically Modified For The First Time4 min read

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By Jesse Herman| Every few months, a new article pops up talking about genetically modified babies.  The concept of artificially altering an embryo so that it can have certain traits is one which is highly controversial.  Rapid progress in genetics is making “designer babies” more likely and society needs to be prepared, a leading scientist told BBC recently.  According to the BBC, the designer babies debate needs to start now, as recent scientific discoveries are beginning to pave the way for making this a reality.

A few days ago, Daily Mail reported:

Human embryos ‘genetically modified for the first time after leading scientists pioneer controversial technique’

  • Extensive work carried out into altering the DNA of human embryos
  • Revolutionary technique could lead to diseases being eliminated
  • But critics say the controversial treatment is ‘ethically unacceptable’

News like this sparks excitement and concern all-at-once. Government contracts, government incentives, corporate protections, patents and so on will make the Designer Baby game as corrupt as the food supply.

The possibilities are endless across the spectrum. And as crazy as it all sounds looking forward, one has to be naive to think some human DNA tinkering has not been done without public knowledge.

In fact, DailyMail shows a two-day old human embryo and underneath it a caption that reads…

Leading American scientists have secretly carried out extensive work into altering the DNA of human embryos. Pictured here is a two-day old human embryo.

The Experiment

The research was carried out on ovary cells taken from a woman with inherited ovarian cancer to investigate the possibility of eventually using gene-editing to produce IVF embryos that are free of the disease.

The Independent reports that researchers at Harvard Medical School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, used the Crispr gene-editing technique on human ovarian tissue cultured in the lab to attempt to correct the defective BRAC1 gene which results in inherited breast and ovarian cancer.

 The work was carried out last year by Luhan Yang, a researcher working in the lab of the respected Harvard geneticist George Church. Professor Church insisted that the work was purely experimental and there was no intention of fertilizing any eggs or transplanting them into a woman.

He said: ‘The experiments were not in human beings. They were in cells in culture.”, meaning that the experiments were done only on human cells.  But the point is, experimentation is already underway to create embryos free of undesirable genes.  In particular, inherited genes that contribute to cancer.

Should we use the results of this experiment to help prevent cancer deaths? Should we carry out further experiments for other diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, downs-syndrome, and Alzheimer?  Once we allow cancer-resistant genetically modified embryos to be created, at what point do we stop?

A group of leading researchers at Alliance for Regenerative Medicine in Washington, USA, have called for the work to now stop, citing ethical, safety and scientific reasons.

Here is a recent FOX News special talking about gene splicing and designer babies:

Professor John Parrington, from Oxford University discussed some of the availability of the technology:

‘I have been expecting this, perhaps not quite so soon. New genome-editing tools are highly efficient and relatively easy to use.

‘These are tools available to practically any molecular biology laboratory in the world and if you also have the ability to inject a fertilised egg, then combining these two technologies makes it possible to precisely modify the genome of the resulting embryo.

‘This makes it feasible for any reasonably skilled lab to use and science being what it is, people will seek to apply these technologies. Clearly some people have done it on human embryos.’

The Moral Issue

A comment article by leading academics in science magazine Nature this week warns of the dangers of the practice.  They wrote:

‘Genome editing in human embryos using current technologies could have unpredictable effects on future generations. This makes it dangerous and ethically unacceptable. Many oppose germline modification on the grounds that permitting even unambiguous therapeutic intervention could start us down a path towards non-therapeutic genetic enhancement. We share these concerns.’

A group of leading researchers at Alliance for Regenerative Medicine in Washington, USA, have called for the work to now stop, citing ethical, safety and scientific reasons.

In a statement, they said: ‘Philosophically or ethically justifiable applications for this technology — should any ever exist — are moot until it becomes possible to demonstrate safe outcomes and obtain reproducible data over multiple generations.

‘Many oppose germline modification on the grounds that permitting even unambiguously therapeutic interventions could start us down a path towards non-therapeutic genetic enhancement. We share these concerns.’

While some countries have explicit legislation prohibiting human engineering, many do not.  These scientific experiments have huge moral and even spiritual implications.  What do you think of the recent experiment that was carried out on human ovary cultures to create a cancer-resistant embryo? Should we continue experimenting with human embryos to weed out diseases and undesirable traits?

Sources: Hyperlinked within the article.

This article was originally written by Jesse Herman of Powerful Primates.

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