Recently we published an article regarding Chinese researchers modifying embryo DNA with CRISPR technology. Naturally, this caused quite the stir among scientists round the globe and now the United States has officially taken a stance on the matter. Dr Francis Collins, National Institutes of Health director, has argued that modifying embryo DNA poses “serious and unquantifiable safety issues” in addition to ethical questions. He also states that there are no medical reasons for doing it. In fact, he calls the process a “line that should not be crossed.”
To recap the experiment, a team at Sun Yat-sen University, Guangzhou, used CRISPR to modify defective parts of DNA that lead to a blood disorder called beta thalassaemia. However, the correction was only successful in seven of 86 attempts, in football terms that’s a meager eight percent conversion rate. Not very good at all, especially if this is something they want to move forward with. The CRISPR doesn’t usually hit the target and, in fact, can cause other mutations. While the embryos used were “non-viable” and couldn’t develop into actual humans the general consensus shared by scientists around the world is that they want no part of this.
Thus, US National Institutes of Health has officially stated that none of this research should take place. Dr. Collins, a key player in the Human Genome Project, had this to say.
The concept of altering the human germline in embryos for clinical purposes has been debated over many years from many different perspectives, and has been viewed almost universally as a line that should not be crossed.
Advances in technology have given us an elegant new way of carrying out genome editing, but the strong arguments against engaging in this activity remain.
These include the serious and unquantifiable safety issues, ethical issues presented by altering the germline in a way that affects the next generation without their consent, and a current lack of compelling medical applications.
Dr. Marcy Darnovsky, from the Center for Genetics and Society in the US, also argued that “There is no persuasive medical reason to manipulate the human germline because inherited genetic diseases can be prevented using embryo screening techniques, among other means.” He then brought up this very appropriate question “Is the only justification for trying to refine germline gene editing the prospect of so-called enhancement?” If this modifying method were 100 percent safe and accurate then there’s a very real possibility that scientists would be more on-board, but only if it were used for medical reasons. But with that being said, I have no doubt that this research will continue and we’ll eventually be living in a world similar to that of Gattaca with designer babies and all.