U.S. scientists have for the first time altered the genes of human embryos — a controversial step toward someday helping babies avoid inherited diseases.
Researchers at Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) in Portland believe they have broken new ground both in the number of embryos experimented upon and by demonstrating it is possible to safely and efficiently correct defective genes that cause inherited diseases, according to MIT Technology Review, which first reported the newsWednesday.
It is thought to be the first such work in the U.S.; scientists in China have published similar studies with mixed results.
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None of the embryos were allowed to develop for more than a few days, and they were never intended for implant into a womb, according to the report.
Results of the peer-reviewed study are expected to be published soon in a scientific journal, according to OHSU spokesperson Eric Robinson.
The research, led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov, head of OHSU’s Center for Embryonic Cell and Gene Therapy, involves a technology known as CRISPR that has opened up new frontiers in genetic medicine because of its ability to modify genes quickly and efficiently.
CRISPR works as a type of molecular scissors that can selectively trim away unwanted parts of the genome and replace them with new stretches of DNA.
With gene editing, the changes are permanent and would be passed down to any offspring.
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The approach holds great potential to avoid many genetic diseases but has raised fears of “designer babies” if done for less lofty reasons, such as producing desirable traits, leading some countries to sign a convention prohibiting the practice.
In December 2015, scientists and ethicists at an international meeting held at the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in Washington said it would be “irresponsible” to use gene editing technology in human embryos for therapeutic purposes, such as to correct genetic diseases, until safety and efficacy issues are resolved.
But earlier this year, NAS and the National Academy of Medicine said scientific advances make gene editing in human reproductive cells “a realistic possibility that deserves serious consideration.”