Safe re­pair of gene in em­bryos sparks fears over de­signer ba­bies

The Hamilton Spectator - - CANADA & WORLD - PAM BELLUCK

Sci­en­tists for the first time have suc­cess­fully edited genes in hu­man em­bryos to re­pair a com­mon and se­ri­ous dis­ease-caus­ing mu­ta­tion, pro­duc­ing ap­par­ently healthy em­bryos, ac­cord­ing to a study pub­lished on Wed­nes­day.

The re­search marks a ma­jor mile­stone and, while a long way from clin­i­cal use, it raises the prospect that gene edit­ing may one day pro­tect ba­bies from a va­ri­ety of hered­i­tary con­di­tions.

But the achieve­ment is also an ex­am­ple of ge­netic en­gi­neer­ing, once feared and un­think­able, and is sure to re­new eth­i­cal con­cerns that some might try to de­sign ba­bies with cer­tain traits, like greater in­tel­li­gence or ath­leti­cism.

“We’ve al­ways said in the past gene edit­ing shouldn’t be done, mostly be­cause it couldn’t be done safely,” said Richard Hynes, a cancer re­searcher at the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy who co-led the com­mit­tee.

“That’s still true, but now it looks like it’s go­ing to be done safely soon,” he said.

Shoukhrat Mi­tal­ipov and other sci­en­tists at Ore­gon Health and Sci­ence Univer­sity, with col­leagues in Cal­i­for­nia, China and South Korea, re­ported that they re­paired dozens of em­bryos, fix­ing a mu­ta­tion that causes a com­mon heart con­di­tion that can lead to sud­den death later in life.

If em­bryos with the re­paired mu­ta­tion were al­lowed to de­velop into ba­bies, they would not only be dis­ease-free but also would not trans­mit the dis­ease to de­scen­dants.

The re­searchers averted two im­por­tant safety prob­lems: They pro­duced em­bryos in which all cells — not just some — were mu­ta­tion­free, and they avoided cre­at­ing unwanted ex­tra mu­ta­tions.

Po­ten­tially, it could ap­ply to any of more than 10,000 con­di­tions caused by spe­cific in­her­ited mu­ta­tions. Re­searchers and ex­perts said those might in­clude breast and ovar­ian cancer linked to BRCA mu­ta­tions, as well as dis­eases like Hunt­ing­ton’s, Tay-Sachs, beta tha­lassemia, and even sickle cell ane­mia, cys­tic fi­bro­sis or some cases of early-on­set Alzheimer’s.

“You could cer­tainly help fam­i­lies who have been blighted by a hor­ri­ble ge­netic dis­ease,” said Robin Lovell-Badge, a pro­fes­sor of ge­net­ics and em­bry­ol­ogy at the Fran­cis Crick In­sti­tute in Lon­don who was not in­volved in the study.

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