U.S. Scientists Edit Human Embryo “Improving” the DNA…Are Designer Babies Next?

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Shoukhrat Mitalipov of Oregon Health & Science University became the first to successfully edit a human embryo to remove a gene associated with disease, surpassing previous embryo DNA work in China, according to a new report from MIT Technology Review.

The breakthrough could help protect babies from inherited diseases, saving countless lives. But, it could also become a method for genetically engineering “designer babies” or “weapons of mass destruction,” critics warn.

The team edited one-cell human embryos using a technique called CRISPR. They did not allow the embryos to develop for more than a few days, at which point they looked like tiny clumps of cells. They were produced using sperm from men who had a known genetic mutation, and the scientists succeeded in only modifying the DNA they targeted (a procedure called mosaicism), without any unintended gene alterations.

“Mitalipov and his colleagues are said to have convincingly shown that it is possible to avoid both mosaicism and ‘off-target’ effects, as the CRISPR errors are known,” the MIT report said.

Mitalipov’s group injected CRISPR into the eggs immediately when they were fertilized with sperm.

One scientist commented that the technique “is proof of principle that it can work. They significantly reduced mosaicism. I don’t think it’s the start of clinical trials yet, but it does take it further than anyone has before.”

The National Academy of Sciences produced a report in early 2017 viewed by the scientific community as evidencing support for lab research on human embryo modification, but only if used for eliminating serious diseases.

The report disavowed the use of genetic modifications for enhancements like higher intelligence. “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.

Scientists consider this a breakthrough achievement in genetic modification to reduce disease, but the procedure has caused a flood of controversy.

One organization up in arms about the development is U.S. national intelligence. Director James Clapper adds gene editing to the list of “weapons of mass destruction and proliferation.”

A U.S. intelligence report representing the “collective insights” of the CIA, NSA, and other U.S. spy and fact-gathering organizations stated, “Given the broad distribution, low cost, and accelerated pace of development of this dual-use technology, its deliberate or unintentional misuse might lead to far-reaching economic and national security implications.”

“Research in genome editing conducted by countries with different regulatory or ethical standards than those of Western countries probably increases the risk of the creation of potentially harmful biological agents or products,” the report continued.

The security concerns center largely around the use of CRISPR techniques to make biological agents of destruction, like “killer mosquitoes,” crop-destroying plagues, or deadly viruses.

“Biotechnology, more than any other domain, has great potential for human good, but also has the possibility to be misused,” says Daniel Gerstein, a senior policy analyst at RAND and a former under secretary at the Department of Homeland Defense. “We are worried about people developing some sort of pathogen with robust capabilities, but we are also concerned about the chance of misutilization. We could have an accident occur with gene editing that is catastrophic, since the genome is the very essence of life.”

However, the intelligence report also specifically discussed the use of CRISPR to edit human embryo DNA for purposes such as removing disease risks. It said that the technology is advancing so fast that it’s leading “groups of high-profile U.S. and European biologists to question unregulated editing of the human germ line (cells that are relevant for reproduction), which might create inheritable genetic changes.”

Regardless of the U.S.’ position on the issue, human embryo gene editing is likely to become a reality. While the U.S. has laws against editing human embryos for procedures such as IVF – Congress forbid the FDA to approve clinical trials on such efforts, and the NIH banned experiments involving genome-editing of human embryos – other countries have no such legal restrictions and could begin using human embryo editing for IVF at any time.

Source: MIT Technology Review