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Gene editing carried out, distances ‘designer baby’ possibility

Published on 03/08/17 at 09:19am
IMAGE: OHSU

The news broke last week that scientists in the US had carried out the first gene editing testing in the country but the full details were not released until today. It was revealed that the tests were able to eradicate the genetic mutation that leads to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a heart condition that kills many young, healthy adults.

In the study, it was revealed that in 42 out of 58 embryos (72%) were able to be created that were entirely free from the mutation. In these embryos, there were no examples of ‘mosaicism’ – whereby some cells within an embryo display the genetic mutation while others do not. This was the case in previous studies that were conducted in China but the team from Oregon Health and Science University were able to avoid this.

“Every generation on would carry this repair because we’ve removed the disease-causing gene variant from that family’s lineage,” said senior author Shoukhrat Mitalipov, who directs the Center for Embryonic Cell and Gene Therapy at OHSU in Portland, Oregon. “By using this technique, it’s possible to reduce the burden of this heritable disease on the family and eventually the human population.”

The fact that any genetic change would be carried over into future generations is where ethical questions are being raised over the research. There are fears that the technique could be used for more cosmetic reasons, as opposed to curing hereditary conditions.

Once the technique has been advanced far enough, there are worries that private fertility clinics could take their own direction to indulge the whims of clients – raising fears of modifying embryos for desirable traits.

However, a new discovery revealed by the scientists involved actually pushes this prospect into the distant future, if not into the realms of impossibility. During the editing process, the mutation was corrected not by the healthy ‘sample’ provided by the scientists into the embryo but by the egg cell’s healthy DNA.

This means that the potential to ‘force’ the embryo cells to uptake certain desirable sections of DNA may be much more difficult than previously thought, as cells may act to repair themselves if they have a healthy section of DNA to repair with.

This will not stop questions being raised about whether people should be experimenting with DNA, especially since preventing embryos with the heart condition is already possible through pre-implantation genetic diagnosis at fertility clinics.

Ben Hargreaves

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