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Scientists create worlds first genetically modified human embryos


A funny thing happened on the way to the publisher. In a world first, China has successfully created genetically modified human embryos. It was certainly an amazing piece of science, but the paper was rejected by both Nature and Science. Not because the study was flawed, or because the data was falsified, the paper was rejected for ethical reasons.

For anyone not privy to the study or the outcry, researchers attempted to replace the gene responsible for a potentially fatal blood disorder called β-thalassemia. They used a gene editing technique called CRISPR/Cas9 on non-viable single-cell human embryos. This technique is what allows researchers to snip and splice DNA at desired locations.

Not quite a total failure

The study in question wasn’t the tour de force of science you might expect. Essentially the researchers failed miserably in the actual editing of the human genome. CRISPR/Cas9 – is still not quite ready for something complex as human use.

How bad was it you might ask, well as Nature reports, of the 86 embryos researchers started with, only a fraction successfully had the problematic gene replaced with a normal copy. Moreover, the CRISPR/Cas9 approach introduced new mutations into other, unintended places in the genome.

Human genome editing is a complex issue because any changes you make can be passed on to future generations. This could have unexpected consequences that are not easily predicted. Unfortunately, the science of human genome editing is no longer theoretical; we as a society need to determine the ethical guidelines. Science is now moving at a faster pace than our moral code and because of this, we desperately need to play catch up.

Conversely rejecting the science on moral grounds is disheartening as well. If history has shown anything it is that progress cannot be stopped and pushing human genome editing aside because people think we are not ready for it is not doing humankind a favor.

The future is coming

This experiment was all, but a failure. However it highlights the idea that we are on a precipice of something huge. We now have a tool that could one day in the distant future eliminate human suffering, or conversely a weapon. One that could bring to life the most gruesome and horrific dreams Hitler could ever have for a “master race.”

The genie is out of the bottle, but what we do with it will dictate where we go and how we survive as a species. With anything that has the potential to bring great reward, there is also a risk of abuse and misuse. Trying to halt these advancements gives a chance for people with far less moral qualms about human genetic modification a chance to see what they can do with the technology.

This isn’t an argument for embracing genetic modification of humans, that is irrelevant because it is already here. Rather this is an attempt at pointing out the obvious, we cannot stop it, but if we jump ship we can’t chance it’s course. Ignoring or shaming the people with enough moral fortitude to do the research ethically and publish it does not help anyone.

Welcome to the future. It may look like a scary place, but it does not have to be a scary place if we can just talk about it rationally – something society seems to have a problem doing.

If you want to know more about CRISPR/Cas9 you can watch this video from MIT:

Liang, P., Xu, Y., Zhang, X., Ding, C., Huang, R., Zhang, Z., Lv, J., Xie, X., Chen, Y., Li, Y., Sun, Y., Bai, Y., Songyang, Z., Ma, W., Zhou, C., & Huang, J. (2015). CRISPR/Cas9-mediated gene editing in human tripronuclear zygotes Protein & Cell DOI: 10.1007/s13238-015-0153-5

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