Bioethics Blogs

Designer Embryos: The Future is Now

by Craig Klugman, Ph.D.

Oh, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in ’t! (Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act 5, Scene 1.

Nature News on Wednesday reported a group of Chinese researchers have successful genetically engineered a human embryo.

Researchers used “non-viable” embryos from fertility clinics. These embryos had an extra set of chromosome, having been fertilized by two sperm and containing three nuclei. Such embryos were chosen because of the impossibility of them gestating into a human being. The team then used the enzyme CRISPR/Cas9 which permit scientists to snip out genes and insert new ones. They edited the HBB gene that is responsible for β-thalassaemia. This genetic disease causes a range of blood disorders. Repairing the gene in an early stage embryo should theoretically remove the disease from the person the embryo will become and his or her future progeny.

The authors published their article in an online, open access journal, Protein and Cell after being rejected from Nature and Science for undefined ethical concerns. 86 early-stage human embryos were injected with CRISPR and after 48 hours the embryos reached the 8-cell stage. 71 embryos survived, 54 were tested, and 28 were successfully spliced. Many contained undesirable mutations, which the scientists say may have been a result of the unviable embryos used. Seven of those embryos contained the desired genetic switch. Thus the overall success rate was 8.1%.

The announcement comes a month after the Alliance for Regenerative Medicine called for a moratorium on genetic engineering in humans.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.