Bioethics News

Genome editing. Human embryos modified for the second time

The risks that they involve for the individual treated and future generations, and for the step taken towards human “enhancement”

On 6th April, Chinese scientists at the University of Guangzhou published an article in which they announced that they had used the CRISPR/Cas9 technique to introduce a genetic modification that confers resistance to the AIDS virus in human embryos.

This is the second time that genome editing has been applied in human embryos. Last April, another group of investigators, also Chinese, applied this technique to non-viable embryos left over from in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) treatments, in order to modify the gene responsible for β-thalassaemia, a potentially fatal blood disorder. However, the investigators stated that their results revealed serious obstacles for using the method in medical applications, since the genome editing was successful in very few embryos and numerous undesired effects also occurred. The results of the new study, which also used non-viable embryos left over from IVF treatments, also showed low efficacy.

Another recent step in this respect is the approval on 2nd February by the UK Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) of a request from the Francis Crick Institute in London to use the CRISPR/Cas9 technique in human embryos for the first time in the country.

Genome editing risks

Apart from the technical aspects, these types of applications raise serious ethical difficulties, not only because of their link to IVF and the destruction of human embryos, but also for the risks that they involve for the individual treated and future generations, and for the step taken towards human “enhancement”.

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.