Humanity has an ethical question it’s going to have to think about now with today’s announcement that scientists in Oregon have successfully edited genes in human embryos to repair a disease-causing mutation that often kills young athletes.
It’s a process that’s nowhere near ready to try during a pregnancy but it could lead to our ability to protect babies from a variety of hereditary diseases, the New York Times reports.
If embryos with the repaired mutation were allowed to develop into babies, the diseased gene would be banished from descendants too.
“By using this technique, it’s possible to reduce the burden of this heritable disease on the family and eventually the human population,” said Dr. Shoukhrat Mitalipov, a member of the research team.
What’s not to like here?
“Perhaps the biggest question, and probably the one that will be debated the most, is whether we should be physically altering the genes of an IVF embryo at all,” Darren Griffin, a professor of genetics at the University of Kent, tells the BBC.
This seems like a straightforward question, the answer to which would seem to be “yes, if it keeps a person from collapsing and dying at a too-young age.”
“This is not a straightforward question… equally, the debate on how morally acceptable it is not to act when we have the technology to prevent these life-threatening diseases must also come into play.”
He’s talking about “designer babies”, in which genes are altered to give parents whatever traits they’d like.
But the researchers say that’s actually less of a problem now because the method by which the embryos became disease free did not involve inserting an engineered gene into the DNA code. Instead, the technology damaged the mutated gene in the father’s sperm, allowing a healthy gene from the mother to be copied. Basically, the embryo repaired itself.
That detail should calm the “but there’ll be designer babies!” chorus that was raised after the initial, less detailed account of the process was announced a week ago.
This progress has come over the attempts by the federal government to prevent it by not funding any research that leads to changes in the “germ line” — sperm, cells etc., that transmit genetic information.
Federal agencies also ban funding of research that ultimately leads to the destruction of human embryos in research.
The researchers in this case got around it the old fashioned way: They used private money.