Bioethics News

Genetic engineering of human embryos to treat diseases. An unprejudiced reflection

In the last five years, many laboratories worldwide have employed the genetic engineering technique known as CRISPR/Cas9, in the hope that it might one day be used to treat human diseases. Things seem to have accelerated in the last few days though, after the authorisation in the United Kingdom (UK) of these types of experiments in human embryos (See HERE). As always, there have been shouts of joy and shouts of alarm. Some say that this research holds out great hope, others see the germline — till now considered intangible — threatened, as well as possibilities for manipulating man.

The media have told us of edited human embryos on two occasions. Last April, they reported that in Canton (China), a team led by Junjiu Huang had used this technique to remove the gene that causes beta-thalassaemia, replacing it with a normal active gene in human triploid embryos. Huang acknowledged that the experiment was more failure than triumph, since the technique tested caused numerous errors and rarely hit the target.

He added that CRISPR/Cas9 technology needed to mature considerably before it could be applied to human embryos for therapeutic purposes. A long moratorium was imposed.

These days, the subject has again become news, after British regulators authorised researchers at the Crick Institute in London to apply the technique to a limited number (between 20 and 30) of human embryos produced ex professo, which will be modified and cultured in-vitro for seven days before being analysed. Some investigators say that the experiment would have to be extended beyond one week to be able to see what happens at the critical moments of development.

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.