A new study, published in Nature, outlines the first ever successful editing of the genes of human embryos to repair a disease-causing mutation. Published Wednesday, the procedure marks a significant breakthrough, yielding apparently healthy embryos. While the technique has a long way to go before clinical use is possible, the successful study suggests that someday gene editing may be able to be able to avert a range of serious, hereditary diseases in babies.
However, the issue is also likely to stir up renewed controversy over the prospect of human genetic engineering, including ethical concerns that people could attempt to create designer babies with certain traits, such as higher intelligence.
These prospects have long worried scientists, with regard to both the medical and cultural repercussions of making deliberate changes to human DNA. Certain experts have cautioned that without proper regulation, genetic engineering could lead to a new form of eugenics, allowing people who can afford it to choose and enhance their children’s inherited traits.
The new study outlining the current breakthrough follows a recommendation earlier this year for new guidelines for modifying embryos, from the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine, suggesting the technique should only be employed to avoid dire medical conditions.
According to MIT cancer researcher Richard Hynes, who co-led the research:
“We’ve always said in the past gene editing shouldn’t be done, mostly because it couldn’t be done safely. That’s still true, but now it looks like it’s going to be done safely soon.”
He called the new research “a big breakthrough.”
“What our report said was, once the technical hurdles are cleared, then there will be societal issues that have to be considered and discussions that are going to have to happen. Now’s the time.”
Scientists repaired dozens of embryos with a mutation that causes a common but sometimes deadly heart condition. If those embryos had been allowed to develop, the babies would have been free of the condition and would also not have transmitted the disease to descendants.
Clinical trials of the procedure are not currently allowed under federal law. But if it is proven to safely to avert this mutation, it could potentially be used for any one of 10,000 conditions resulting from inherited mutations, including diseases ranging from breast cancer to Huntington’s to certain cases of early-onset Alzheimer’s.
The research succeeded where past efforts had failed, including experiments in China in 2015, in which scientists were unable to successfully make the intended changes to most embryos.