Breakthrough: Human Embryos Safely Edited to Remove Disease

Breakthrough: Human Embryos Safely Edited to Remove Disease

03:41 25th September 2017 | Hereditary Mutations

Inherited Mutations Prevent a Disease Prevention Disease Cure Human Embryos Dangerous Mutations Heart Disease DNA Mutations Moral Concerns Ethical Concerns Edited Embryos Uterus Fetus Women's Health Molecular Scissors Natural Defense System Human Application Bacterium Harmful Infections Virus Genetic diseases Chromosomal Abnormaliities Healthy Embryos Transfer Implantation PGD PGS

What if, instead of trying to prevent a disease or attempting to cure it – it could just be eliminated, before birth? Surely the world as we know it would change forever, in practically countless ways?

One of the latest breakthroughs in science involved the editing of genes in a human embryo to safely remove a dangerous mutation which results in heart disease.

Some researchers and experts believe the procedure could one day be used to cure cancer, along with thousands of conditions caused by inherited mutations.

What We Know

For the procedure, a genome editing tool (advanced genetic engineering tool) namely CRISPR-Cas9 was used by a US-Korean team* led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov. The research was officially published on the 2nd of August 2017 in the journal Nature.

  • This breakthrough is huge
  • It’s still a long way from clinical use
  • The study did not achieve a 100% success rate
  • Gene editing is in a sense a very precise DNA surgery
  • The method still needs to be optimised and studied with other mutations
  • As with previous related breakthroughs, there are moral and ethical concerns
  • There are numerous risks and consequences to consider (incl. designer baby issues)
  • In theory, a repaired embryo would be disease-free and would not transmit the disease
  • It is unclear how a child with a genetically altered genome will development over a lifetime
  • Gene editing is seen as controversial, but the possibility of safe editing could change things
  • Currently, edited embryos are not allowed to be inserted into the uterus to develop into a fetus in any country

*Scientists at Oregon Health and Science University, with colleagues in California, China and South Korea.

The Actual Technique

As explained by Joyce Harper (Professor of Human Genetics and Embryology, UCL) and Helen O'Neill (Program Director of Reproductive Science and Women's Health MSc, UCL) on The Conversation:

“The technology, which works like molecular scissors to cut and paste DNA, is a natural defence system that bacteria use to fend off harmful infections. This system has the ability to recognise invading virus DNA, cut it and integrate this cut sequence into its own genome – allowing the bacterium to render itself immune to future infections of viruses with similar DNA. It is this ability to recognise and cut DNA that has allowed scientists to use it to target and edit specific DNA regions.”

Producing mutation-free embryos, without creating new mutations, solves two safety problems which is what the researchers claimed to have achieved.

It is unknown how the technology will be received, or how in demand it will be, if ever approved for human application. For now, embryos can be screened for specific genetic diseases and chromosomal abnormalities, allowing healthy embryos to be selected for transfer and implantation. CLICK HERE TO FIND OUT MORE ABOUT PGD AND PGS

One day, gene editing could repair mutant embryos so that more disease-free embryos could be used for implantation, but it cannot be confirmed if this will ever become a reality.

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