Thursday, May 14, 2015

Chinese Scientists Genetically Modify Human Embryos

Well, we knew it was bound to happen sooner or later, regardless of whether people think it's a good idea. Chinese scientists tried recently to modify the genes of human embryos. It was just an experiment and it didn't work this time, but who's to stop them or someone else from trying again? Had they been successful, the genetic modifications could have been passed on from generation to generation.

In their experiment, the Chinese researchers used 85 human embryos left over from in vitro fertilization techniques. Using an advanced DNA editing technique called CRISPR, they tried to cut out a gene and insert another in its place. All 85 attempts failed. In nearly every case either the gene was not edited properly or the embryo died.

The ultimate goal of being able to modify a human's genome would be to be able to eradicate certain human genetic diseases. But a lot of people are squeamish about trying to modify the genes of humans. Aside from the obvious risk of something going wrong (as it did with all 85 of the attempts by the Chinese scientists), what's to stop the technique from being used for all sorts of other modifications of the human genome, beyond just eradicating certain diseases? Most scientists are not convinced the technique should ever be used, even if it seems to be likely that it could be done successfully. But almost for certain, others will try. The time to start thinking about it is now, not after someone actually does successfully modify a the genes in a human embryo.

The paper by the Chinese scientists is difficult to read, but here it is if you'd like to try. More about the CRISPR technique can be found here.

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