Crossing a Line in the Sand
The UK has given the green light to use the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technique in human embryos. Can and should its use be controlled?
"Scientists get ‘gene editing’ go ahead”. This headline – and other variations of it – made front-page news at the beginning of February when the UK approved the genetic modification of human embryos. Unsurprisingly, the announcement was greeted with cheers and disdain; and the media frenzy that followed carried much opinion and analysis of the consequences. A particular favorite attention-grabber of mine, “Just wait until they start introducing 1/2 human 1/2 animal”. Far-fetched, I know, but the development did get me thinking… Where do you draw the line?
This landmark approval grants UK-based researcher Kathy Niakan permission to use the genome-editing technique CRISPR–Cas9 in healthy human embryos during the first few days after fertilization. Her primary reason? To understand IVF success rates in the hope of supporting the development of improved treatments for infertility. An undeniably admirable objective. But are the fears of those who believe that we’re now one step closer to the “designer baby” justified? Well the stipulations of the approval are clear: the experiments must stop after seven days, after which time the embryos will be destroyed – so absolutely no implantation will occur.
The development has stirred debate on the use of gene editing to eliminate inherited disorders. In fact, scientists in China have already begun, announcing last year their correction of a gene that causes a blood disorder in human embryos (1). In their paper, however, the scientists admitted that their results reveal “serious obstacles to using the method in medical applications”, and there’s still huge uncertainty surrounding the long-term impact of such prenatal dabbling.
Jennifer Doudna from the University of California, in line to receive a Nobel Prize for the development of CRISPR-Cas9, vented her concerns in Nature: “Human-germline editing for the purposes of creating genome-modified humans should not proceed at this time, partly because of the unknown social consequences, but also because the technology and our knowledge of the human genome are simply not ready to do so safely,” (2). While George Church, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School, argues that banning it “could put a damper on the best medical research and instead drive the practice underground to black markets and uncontrolled medical tourism.” (3)
The debate will no doubt roll on. My own views on the matter are conflicted. Certainly a strong and emotional case in favor was made by a woman who attended the International Summit on Human Gene Editing in Washington last December. Having lost her child at six days old to a genetic ailment, she implored the research community, “If you have the skills and the knowledge to eliminate these diseases, then freakin’ do it!”
- P Liang et al., “CRISPR/Cas9-mediated gene editing in human tripronuclear zygotes”, Protein Cell, 6, 363–372 (2015). PMID: 25894090.
- J Doudna, “Perspective: Embryo editing needs scrutiny”, Nature, 528, S6 (2015). PMID: 26630598.
- G Church, "Perspective: Encourage the innovators", Nature, 528, S7 (2015). PMID: 26630599.
After graduating with a pharmacology degree, I began my career in scientific publishing and communications. Now with more than 16 years of experience in this field, my career has seen me heading up editorial and writing teams at Datamonitor, Advanstar and KnowledgePoint360 group. My past experiences have taught me something very important – that you have to enjoy working with, and have respect for your colleagues. It’s this that drew me to Texere where I now work with old colleagues and new. Though we are a hugely diverse team, we share several things in common – a real desire to work hard to succeed, to be the best at what we do, never to settle for second best, and to have fun while we do it. I am now honored to serve as Editor of The Pathologist and Editorial Director of Texere Publishing.