Scientists Edit Human Embryos For the First Time Ever

Jessica Miley

The scientists led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov of Oregon Health and Science University, changed the DNA of a one-cell embryo, using the gene-editing technique CRISPR. This is the first time human embryos have been successfully modified.

Scientists Edit Human Embryos For the First Time Ever

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Human embryo editing has been done before in other parts of the world, but no American scientists have completed the ethically problematic experiment. Three articles on human embryo editing have been published by Chinese scientists.  

It is reported Mitalipov has experimented with a record number of embryos to demonstrate that it is possible to efficiently correct defective genes that cause inherited diseases.

The embryos were intentionally killed after the experiments and the lab had no plans to test the embryos in a human womb. The successful experiments do mark a huge leap forward in the possibility of a genetically modified human.

The alteration of human DNA allows for scientists to remove or eradicate the genes that cause inherited diseases.  This process of gene eradication is called “germline engineering”. Any person who was given the modified genes would then pass the corrected genes onto their own children via their own germ cells.

Human DNA manipulation poses serious questions about the possibility of "designer babies" that are engineered to specifications. Creating children with possible "genetic enhancements" is vehemently opposed by many religious and biotech groups.

The technique used by the scientists, a process called CRISPR was dubbed by the US CRISPR a potential "weapon of mass destruction." 

The scientist at the heart of the discussion, Mitalipov Has so far declined to comment further on the details of the experiments. A publication of the results is expected soon. Jun Wu, a collaborator at the Salk Institute, in La Jolla, California, has confirmed the experiments saying, ‘“So far as I know this will be the first study reported in the U.S.”

US have refined the CRISPR technique

Earlier Chinese derived publication reported errors when using the CRISPR technique. Publishing experiments where the desired DNA changes were not taken up by all the cells of the targeted embryo. This is an effect known as mosaicism that gives fuel to skeptics of the process that it is an unsafe method of gene interference.

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It is thought the Mitalipov led experiment used “many tens” of human IVF embryos created from donated sperm of men who have inherited diseases. It is unknown what diseases the donated cells were carrying.

A scientist familiar with the project told an MIT reporter, "It 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."

Mitalipov has been at the leading edge of gene technology for many years.  He unveiled the world’s first cloned monkey in 2007 and then, in 2013, he created human embryos through cloning. The process was a way of creating patient-specific stem cells. Once the results are published we will be able to understand the possibilities of this type of research more clearly.  

Sources: MITTechnologyReview, BusinessInsiderEurekAlert, OHSU

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