For so long genetic diseases have been a part of human life with no answer to curing or preventing them. Conditions like cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s disease, haemophilia and down syndrome have all been a part of life that we couldn’t control or change – until now. In a world first scientific breakthrough, scientists were able to modify the genomes of human embryos signalling that intervening in the health of an embryo that may have a mutation to correct it could be possible.
Researchers from the Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China, made the discovery by investigating the possibility of altering the faulty gene responsible for a potentially fatal genetic blood disorder called beta thalassemia. To do this, they collected donor embryos from a fertility clinic that were non-viable. Although these were intended for use in IVF, they ended up with too many chromosomes because they were fertilised by multiple sperm, so they couldn’t have resulted in a live birth.
Then, using a well-established gene editing technique (to read more about it, click here), they replaced the gaps with healthy genes and monitored their development. While some of the embryos did not develop, 54 surviving embryos were tested to see if the editing was successful. They found that the faulty gene was removed successfully in 28 embryos however only a few had success with the replacement gene that was inserted. At this stage, the study was too imprecise and immature to suggest a fast answer to genetic diseases. However, it is a significant achievement and step forward for genetic modification.
The concept itself is a difficult one because while it is scientifically exciting, the moral position is questionable.
While it could hold the answer to eradicating genetic diseases, it is placing the life of an unborn human in great risk, and the individual in question has no way of consenting to the procedure. For parents of children with genetic diseases there is undoubtedly the question of, “will this give my child a better quality of life?” but as a parent you have to ask yourself, is it worth the risk?
This is the fist ever successful genetic modification of a human embryo and is a great achievement for science, but is playing in this space going against nature? Is it a morally wrong area of science?
Tonights let’s talk – what do you think? Where do you stand on the debate? Share your thoughts in the comments below…