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Aussie experts weigh in on first genetic modification of human embyros on U.S. soil

A Brave New World?

Australian experts from universities and institutes across the nation are reacting to news that human embryos have had their DNA modified using the gene-editing tool CRISPR.

As reported by the MIT Technology Review, a team led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov of Oregon Health and Science University managed to change the DNA of a large number of one-cell human embryos using CRISPR.

Although the controversial technique has previously been used on human embryos in China, this was the first time that it has been done in the U.S.

One the one hand, CRISPR editing could help us to eradicate inherited diseases in babies before they are born. On the other, is the old “playing God” argument. Critics are concerned that we won’t just stop at editing for diseases, and may also edit other attributes, creating so-called “designer babies”.

It can be said that technology itself is morally neutral and it’s how we use it that matters most. The U.S. intelligence community is particularly worried about CRISPR because it is low-cost, broadly distributed and relatively easy to use, which means it could easily get into the wrong hands.

Professor Ernst Wolvetang is Group Leader in the Stem Cell Engineering Group at the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, University of Queensland. He noted that such genome correction of human embryos is currently prohibited in Australia without a license and that embryos can’t mature beyond 14 days.

“Internationally stem cell scientists have called for a temporary moratorium on its use in human embryos while lawmakers, regulatory bodies and society inform themselves of the risks and benefits of taking charge of our germline,” he said. “Some would argue that it is the next logical step in human evolution, but would we have had a theory of relativity if we could have eradicated the mild autistic genes from the Einstein family?”

Dr Sara Howden is a Senior Research Officer and Gene Editing Core Facility Director at Murdoch’s Children Research. She said that it was important to remember that such experiments are strictly regulated and that embryos in the study were not allowed to live past a few days. (Note: The embryo pictured under the headline of this article is approximately 8 weeks old).

“CRISPR/Cas9 is still a very new technology and most experts in the field would agree that we must be very cautious about using this technology to create lasting changes that are passed on to subsequent generations as this could have undesirable and unpredictable consequences,” said added.

The overwhelming consensus among the experts seems to be this: CRISPR is powerful but also heavily regulated, designer babies are still a long way off and we need to decide exactly what we will do with this technology.

“What we should consider now, more than ever before, is ‘what do we use CRISPR for when it comes to human beings’? The answer will certainly not be an easy one, but it will draw the lines of future CRISPR applications in humans,” said Dr Fabien Deleure, who is Manager of the Transgenic Animal Unit and Lecturer in the Dementia Research Unit at The University of New South Wales.

“Take for example the concept of ‘designer babies’. If you bluntly question people around you about the possibility of ‘designing’ babies, an overwhelming majority would find the idea horrifying, probably as a reminiscence of the abject Nazi endeavours that justified eugenics. However, when asked to consider whether genetic manipulation of the human embryo should be allowed to prevent terrible debilitating and terminal childhood conditions, the answers are somewhat different.”

In Aldous Huxley’s dystopian sci-fi novel Brave New World, the genetic engineering of humans led to a totalitarian world in which everyone was assigned a role based on predetermined assignment.

We are still a long from that even being possible, but the CRISPR-editing of human embryos is an important milestone in the path towards fully-blown genetically modified humans.

In the U.S. it is currently illegal to let an edited embryo grow into a baby. However, not all countries share these restrictions so this doesn’t stop the possibility of such research continuing.

Whether or not life will imitate art largely depends on your view of the human race.

About the author

Stefan is an Adelaide-based freelance writer. In his spare time, he plays tennis badly, collects vinyl and brushes up on his Mandarin. Follow Stefan on Twitter

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