Even in the world of science where facts and theories reign supreme, the topic of gene editing in human embryos is controversial. Developmental biologist Fredrik Lanner and colleagues are attempting to do just that in a laboratory in Sweden, making use of the CRISPR-Cas9 technique.
Lanner works at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, where he and his associates have recently begun the only known experiments editing the DNA in healthy, viable human embryos. With the CRISPR-Cas9 technique, the scientists are able to inject it into the embryos, which are in an early stage of development – only days after fertilization.
The CRISPR-Cas9 technique allows scientists to, in essence, cut and paste the tiny genes and alter them in different ways.
The biologist hopes to learn new ways to treat infertility and prevent miscarriages through his gene-editing work; beyond that Lanner also hopes to learn more about embryonic stem cells so that they may be used in the future to treat a variety of diseases. The genes being edited are developmental genes; the CRISPR-Cas9 is being used to “turn off” specific genes that in Lanner’s previous work indicated may be involved in infertility.
The embryos for the Karolinska Institute’s gene-editing experiments were donated by couples who had undergone in-vitro fertilization. And although the modified embryos remain viable, Lanner has provided assurances that they will never be implanted in a human being.
It is the ethics associated with the ability to edit human genes that have both the scientific community and the public-at-large concerned about the potential ramifications ranging from creating a new disease in humans that could take generations to obliterate and/or genetically-modified “designer” babies.
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