For the first time in the United States, scientists have edited the genes of human embryos, a controversial step toward someday helping babies avoid inherited diseases.
The experiments are a milestone in journey towards the birth of the first genetically modified humans, according to the "MIT Technology Review". "So far as I know this will be the first study reported in the US", says Jun Wu, a collaborator at the Salk Institute, in La Jolla, California, who played a role in the project.
In December 2015, a group of worldwide scientists and ethicists, including some from China, assembled by the US National Academy of Sciences said it would be irresponsible to use DNA editing tools to alter the genomes of human embryos, eggs, or sperm until safety, ethical and legal issues were resolved.
In the International Summit on Human Gene Editing held in 2015 in Washington D.C., scientists debated the safety risks and ethical hazards of modifying the human embryos and human "germline" (the genetic blueprint that will be passed on to future generations) using CRISPR.
CRISPR-Cas9 is a tool for making precise edits in DNA, discovered in bacteria.
A fourth paper describing attempts to correct defective genes in human embryos using CRISPR is about to be published.
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The trouble with mosaicism is that there is no sure way to detect it before implanting an embryo into the uterus. Interestingly, Chinese researchers have found it hard to get the genetic changes in every cell of the embryos that they seek edit. But Mitalipov's research is getting us closer: he and his team were able to edit the embryos precisely, with "very few" editing errors, according to STAT.
"They significantly reduced mosaicism", explained one researcher, who chose to remain anonymous.
"It is proof of principle that it can work", the researcher said.
A recent report on genome editing from the National Academies did not call for a moratorium on research into germline editing, arguing that it might one day be a way for some parents to have healthy, biological children, such as when both mother and father carry genetic mutations that cause severe diseases.
Some countries have signed a pact to prohibit the practice for the reason that this could lead to the creation of so-called designer babies. "I don't think it's the start of clinical trials yet, but it does take it further than anyone has before", said a scientist familiar with the project. Then, in 2013, he created human embryos through cloning, as a way of creating patient-specific stem cells.
There are many concerns around genetically engineering humans.