A team of scientists have announced that they have successfully edited DNA in human embryos and that editing has allowed them to make what they call a fundamental discovery about the earliest days of human development. The researchers modified a key gene in very early-stage embryos that is said to be crucial to allowing the embryo to develop normally.
The scientists think that their discovery might be used in the future to help couples with fertility issues have children. The team also thinks that the breakthrough could aid future efforts for using embryonic stem cells for treating various diseases. Manipulating the DNA in the embryos can also give scientific insights into how a single cell can divide and become a human in the future.
One scientist involved in the project, Dietrich Egli, says that gene editing is a tool that could ultimately improve human health. The catch for the team is that their breakthrough is stoking an intense debate about the ethics of changing genes in eggs, sperm, and early embryos that would be passed down in future generations of children.
Critics of this type of research fear that it could one day lead to genetically modified babies or so-called “designer babies.” Marcy Darnovsky, head of the Center for Genetics and Society fears that this sort of research could lead to gene-editing to make kids taller or stronger, potential leading to children perceived to be biologically superior to other children.
Ths new research is led by Kathy Niakan and used a technique called CRISPR to disable a gene that produces a protein called OCT4. The procedure was done on 41 embryos donated by women in treatment for infertility. 80% of the embryos in the test with the gene disabled failed to develop into a blastocyst, which is the stage when the embryos are normally implanted back into the women during in vitro fertilization. This is important in understanding which genes cause infertility according to the researchers.