Scientists alter human embryo DNA: does this open the door for designer babies?

Click to play video: 'Dr. David Agus explains the implications of gene ‘fixing’'
Dr. David Agus explains the implications of gene ‘fixing’
ABOVE: For the first time, U.S. scientists have successfully repaired a faulty gene in human embryos. Using powerful technology, known as "Crispr" researchers have fixed the DNA mutation that causes an inherited form of heart disease – Aug 3, 2017

In a historical first, scientists have successfully altered a faulty gene in a human embryo. While some people in the medical community believe this is a major milestone, others are concerned it could lead to babies designed with enhanced traits rather than to prevent disease.

“This is a beginning of a new frontier. We can change DNA in an embryo. Early onset Alzheimer’s and cystic fibrosis could be diseases of the past,” Dr. David Angus with the University of California told CBS Wednesday.

“But at the same time, where is the line? Would you want to make a child faster, bluer eyed, blonder hair? There is the potential for eugenics. This is something that needs to be discussed.”

On Thursday, a panel of the American Society of Human Genetics and 10 other organizations, recommended against genome editing embryos, saying it raises a multitude of scientific, ethical and policy questions.

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Other experts said the research was remarkable and had taken gene-editing from “future fantasy to the world of possibility.”

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“It’s easy to see both sides of the argument,” Dr. Gary Nakhuda, co-director of the Olive Fertility Centre in Vancouver said. “We’re doing everything we can to cure disease at the earliest possible stage and minimize suffering.”

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However, Nakhuda said he understands why some are worried that this may be a “slippery slope” towards designer superior babies.

“That’s when scientists start enhancing embryos for intelligence, athletics abilities or even longevity,” he said. “That would be of concern.”

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Nakhuda said some people may market this to people who want those enhancements, but he hopes those using the new technology will have the self-control and not use gene editing for these purposes.

How the gene was altered

The study, published in the journal Nature on Wednesday, comes just months after a national scientific committee recommended new guidelines for modifying embryos, easing blanket prescriptions but urging the technique be used only for dire medical problems.

The experiment, which is still a long way from clinical use, was just an exercise in science — the embryos were not allowed to develop for more than a few days and were never intended to be implanted into a womb, according to MIT Technology Review, which first reported the news.

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The Oregon scientists reportedly used a technique called CRISPR, which allows specific sections of DNA to be altered or replaced. It’s like using molecular scissors to cut and paste DNA and is much more precise than some types of gene therapy that cannot ensure that desired changes will take place exactly where and as intended. With gene editing, these so-called “germline” changes are permanent and would be passed down to any offspring.

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A future of modified babies?

Because the procedure is still a long way from heading to clinical trials, Nakhuda believes the concept of designer babies is not an immediate concern.

“Intelligence and athletic abilities are not single genes … those are multi-factorial things and very complex,” he said.

It’s also illegal in Canada. Health Canada prohibits “people from using genetic technologies to alter the DNA of embryos” to prevent “designer babies,” according to its website.

In the U.S., scientists can perform laboratory embryo research only with private, not federal taxpayer, funding, as the Oregon team did.

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For time being, Nakhuda said this is still a huge milestone and hopes to see a future where scientists can use this at a clinical level.

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“It’s not also helping end needless suffering, but may be cost effective if we can treat diseases at the root,” he added.

— With files from the Associated Press

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