An ethical debate has been prompted by the news that a Chinese team of scientists were able to change genes in human embryos for the first time, showing that use of the technology is near.
According to The Los Angeles Times
, the news revealed that such genetic manipulation is not only possible but also easy to accomplish. It is also a technology that is expected to happen soon.
On the one hand, scientists say that there could be several benefits to DNA editing, which was said to be the case of the Chinese scientists, who were trying to fix a defect that causes a potentially fatal blood disorder.
On the other, there are fears that it may lead to ethically disturbing eugenics aims.
"The positive side is, it allows regular biologists to change the DNA in any organism. The negative side is, it allows regular biologists to change the DNA in any organism," Harvard Medical School geneticist George Church told The Times.
"You can twist any technology into something bad," Church said.
Gene editing has been made more possible with a new tool called the CRISPR/Cas9, which allows almost any scientist to alter the DNA of almost any cell.
It has been used in recent years to edit genes in adult cells, even bone marrow cells, which could help a person become resistant to HIV.
It was also used with primate embryos, in which it was shown that genes could be edited to change immune function and metabolism.
However, scientists say that editing a single-celled embryo could have some troubling repercussions because that alteration would not only be copied by all of the embryo's cells, but it would also effect future generations of the embryo.
According to The Times, scientists say that CRISPR/Cas9 use should be halted until the ethical concerns and questions are addressed, specifically to make sure that it isn't used prematurely or to make enhanced human beings.
"We've got to take this serious," said David Baltimore, a Caltech biologist and Nobel Prize winner for his work on the genetics of viruses that lead to cancer.
While the risk of permanent genetic changes that affect future generations has been known, "it was logistically so complex that there was no clear path forward, so we didn't worry about it a lot," Baltimore said. "Now, it's here."
While the Chinese scientists were able to successfully modify a gene that causes a potentially deadly blood disorder, the experiment was not without its flaws
. Out of 86 single-cell fertilized embryos that the team tried to alter, only 28 were deemed successful. Consequently, the study ended because of the low rate of success.
"They ran into all sorts of problems," Baltimore said. "It drives home that we're not ready to do this."
However, others think that gene editing is around the corner, especially since there are no rules in place to govern how such technology can be used.
In March, Baltimore joined other scientists, including the creators of CRISPR-Cas9, in calling for a self-imposed worldwide moratorium on using the technology, out of fear of researchers and doctors who may want to use DNA editing on humans
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