First Human Embryos Edited in US

Brandon Parsons
July 28, 2017

Researchers from Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) in Portland carried out the study, according to MIT's Technology Review.

The OHSU research is believed to have broken new ground both in the number of embryos experimented upon and by demonstrating it is possible to safely and efficiently correct defective genes that cause inherited diseases, according to Technology Review, which first reported the news.

According to MIT Technology Review, the experiment was just an exercise in science - the embryos were not allowed to develop for more than a few days and were never meant to be implanted into a womb. In the new work, Technology Review reported, Mitalipov and his colleagues created human embryos using sperm donated by men with the genetic mutation that they planned to try to fix with CRISPR. But they only managed to make their desired DNA changes on a small number of cells, creating an effect known as "mosaicism". It involves using molecular "scissors" to remove undesirable elements of gene sequencing and replace them with new DNA elements. The team's results are still pending publication, so we'll likely hear more details about the study in the future.

"This is the kind of research that is essential if we are to know if it's possible to safely and precisely make corrections" in embryos' DNA to fix disease-causing genes", legal scholar and bioethicist R. Alta Charo of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, told STAT. They said although basic and preclinical research should be allowed, edited human embryos should not be used to establish a pregnancy.

Until now, the only three published reports of human embryo gene editing were from researchers in China.

Critics say that such experiments may open the gates to a world of "designer babies" engineered with genetic enhancements - a prospect opposed by religious organisations, civil society groups, and biotech companies.

Scientists in China have attempted the same experiments on human embryos, to mixed results. Those regulatory barriers include a ban on using National Institutes of Health funding for experiments that use genome-editing technologies in human embryos. CRISPR is a very precise gene-editing tool, but it can sometimes lead to editing errors. "I don't think it's the start of clinical trials yet, but it does take it further than anyone has before", a scientist familiar with the project was quoted as saying.

In this way, researchers can precisely turn off specific genes in the genome.

Don't expect a new generation of gene-edited people in the USA, though: Any local efforts to turn edited IVF embryos into babies have, so far, been blocked by Congress.

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