MAY 01, 2015 3:50 PM PDT

The US Takes a Stance against Modifying Embryo DNA

WRITTEN BY: Jennifer Ellis
Given new advances in genetic engineering, we now have the ability to edit DNA better than ever before. As part of having this power, we have the potential to alter DNA to the point where we can play the role of "God." An example of this is the ability to decide whether a baby lives or dies. The possibility of creating what some refer to as "designer babies" and genetically altering the future of a human-being before they are able to do so carries a significant amount of weight to it. Many questions, both scientific and ethical, arise from the situation and leave much to debate.

Despite all of the dilemmas and ethicality associated with what could result from editing the DNA that gets passed down from one generation to another, a team of Chinese scientists from Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China went ahead and used Crispr, the tool behind the advances, to modify defective parts of DNA anyway. Reported originally in the journal, Protein and Cell¸ the goal of their research experiment was to see if they could delete a gene for beta thalassemia (a blood disorder) from the DNA of 86 nonviable embryos. The experiment resulted in success for 7 of the 86 total embryos used but news that was associated to the topic ended up becoming more important. The director of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Francis Collins, who also happens to be the leader of the US effort to sequence the human genome, made it clear that the NIH refuses to fund this type of research.

Collins ended up stating the following regarding the matter:

"[Editing human embryos] is a line that should not be crossed. [There are] serious and unquantifiable safety issues, ethical issues presented altering the germline in a way that affects the next generation without their consent and a current lack of compelling medical applications justifying the use of [genetic engineering] in embryos."

It should be noted that the stance the NIH is taking on the matter shouldn't come as a surprise as the federal government has historically been conservative on embryonic research for quite some time. The NIH isn't the only organization that is taking a stand against the matter either, in this case the Science and Nature journal ended up refusing to publish the study conducted by the Chinese scientists citing ethical problems. Dr. Marcy Darnovsky from the Center for Genetics and Society in the US took the same stance by stating the following:

"There is no persuasive medical reason to manipulate the human germline because inherited genetic diseases can be prevented using embryo screening techniques, among other means."

When it comes to a topic such as this one, you'll always have people provide conflicting views on the matter. As noted by the folks over at The Guardian, bioethicist Christopher Gyngell took a different stance, stating that it would be unethical to prevent such research in the first place. To back up his stance, Gyngell referred to Tay-Sachs disease, where he noted that children with the disease develop normally for six months and then progressively get worse with issues such as deafness, blindness and even as going as far as becoming paralytic before inevitable death in many cases. He claimed that gene editing would benefit future generations if we were able to help remedy this situation and that by editing this gene out of the human lineage, society as a whole would lose nothing.

When it comes to the progress made on gene editing techniques, the process as a whole is nowhere near where it needs to be to be able to help get rid of diseases permanently just yet anyway. What makes the whole issue a bit more delicate is that the modifications tend to be very specific and therefore difficult to target. To top it all off, the editing process may cause damage to the entire genome. We'll have to see what stance different organizations, countries and people take, then see if there is any common ground that can be reached to help move forward with leveraging genetic engineering to benefit society.

Source: BBC, The Guardian, Nature, NIH, Popular Science, Protein and Cell
About the Author
  • I love all things science and am passionate about bringing science to the public through writing. With an M.S. in Genetics and experience in cancer research, marketing and technical writing, it is a pleasure to share the latest trends and findings in science on LabRoots.
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