Chris Gyngell and Julian Savulescu
Human genetic modification has officially progressed from science fiction to science. In a world first, scientists have used the gene editing technique CRISPR to modify human embryos. While the study itself marks an important milestone, the reason it is truly extraordinary is the scientific community’s reaction to it. In refusing to publish this study on ethical grounds, the world’s two leading science journals Nature and Science, appear to be demonstrating a lack of clear and consistent thinking on ethical issues.
The study, eventually published in the journal Protein & Cell, is more a small step than a great leap. CRISPR has been used to modify embryos is a number of other species including primates. It has also been used in human somatic cells – cells which are not passed from parent to child. However CRISPR has never been used in human embryos, and there are significant gaps in our knowledge about how the system would behave in an embryonic environment. CRISPR utilises a cell’s own DNA repair mechanism to modify strands of DNA, and it is unclear how the DNA repair mechanism in human embryos would interact with the CRISPR system. The study by Huang and co-authors aimed to fill this gap in the literature by seeing how effectively and efficiently CRISPR could make changes to DNA in human embryos.
This research is significant and important. Gene editing techniques like CRISPR could one day provide therapeutic cures to genetic diseases, and indeed completely eradicate diseases like Tay-Sachs, Huntington’s disease, and cystic fibrosis from our populations.
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.