Editing Embryos- playing God or our responsibility?

By Dr. Nick Walker 2 years ago
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Gene editing technology is allowing us to control the genomes of living cells. The potential of this technology is one of the most exciting developments in modern medicine today. Today, an ongoing trail in China is using gene edited cells to treat an aggressive lung cancer and US trails in the treatment of various cancers are due to start early this year. Additionally, further cancer trails are planned to begin this month at Peking University in China [1]. However, not only cancers could be treated with CRISPR; Stanford University are planning trials for a treatment for sickle cell anaemia and as the technology improves, its applications are bound to multiply [2]. Clearly, this technology has massive potential in the treatment of disease, but what about disease prevention?

Figure 1: The mechanism by which CRISPR/Cas9 repairs gene mutations. Source: Advanced Analytical

Crisp

The majority of the human population are born with immune cells expressing a molecule called CCR5. A small sub set of the population have a mutated CCR5 (called CCR5Δ32) and it is this mutation that gives some people a natural immunity to HIV. A group in China have reported successfully editing the CCR5 gene in non-viable human embryos [3]. This edit would effectively produce an embryo and subsequent individual immune to HIV.

Figure 2: The mechanism by which CCR5Δ32 prevents HIV infection. Source: Health Connection.

Crisp 2

The embryos in this study were non-viable donated embryos from a fertility clinic. They were donated because they all contained various genetic mutations that would could not result in live births. However, this experiment is a valuable proof-of-concept. We now have the ability to modify an embryo to be immune to disease. When viewed in the most simplistic light, this is a vaccine of sorts.

This technology does however highlight important ethical considerations. The supplied example was to make a child immune to HIV but what about editing in or out cosmetic, non-medical features? The creation of “designer babies” has been largely condemned by most professionals in the field. This technology would also involve IVF and costly genetic analysis and procedures and would be only accessible to the super rich, initially at least. However, as with all medical advances, especially ones as radical as this, there will be initial push-back. There is no doubt that the possible benefits of editing embryos for preventing disease are massive however strict legislation is needed to control its use in other applications.

References:

  1. http://www.nature.com/news/crispr-gene-editing-tested-in-a-person-for-the-first-time-1.20988
  2. https://med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2016/11/researchers-take-step-toward-gene-therapy-for-sickle-cell-disease.html
  3. Kang, X. et al. J. Assist. Reprod. Genet. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10815-016-0710-8 (2016).
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 Dr. Nick Walker

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