Embryos genetically modified in controversial world first

Eminent scientists have raised “grave concerns” about a controversial new procedure to genetically modify human embryos.

In a world first, a team in China used the technique, called Crispr, to alter an abnormal gene that causes a life-threatening blood disorder. They used abnormal embryos discarded by local fertility clinics.

According to Junjiu Huang who led the research, two prominent journals – Nature and Science – declined to publish the paper partly on ethical grounds.

Ethics and safety

Leading researchers have responded by warning in Nature about the ethics and safety of the genetic modification of human embryos, and posing questions about the therapeutic benefits of such techniques.

They called on the scientific community to suspend these experiments, saying that “genome editing in human embryos using current technologies could have unpredictable effects on future generations”.

“This makes it dangerous and ethically unacceptable”, they added.

Designer babies

Huang’s team tried to correct the faulty gene in 86 human embryos, but the procedure only worked properly in a tiny portion of those tested – they were not implanted in women after being modified.

Earlier this year, a leading scientist said that society needs to be prepared for the prospect of ‘designer babies’ in the wake of recent developments in genetics.

Dr Tony Perry’s comments came after it was announced that the Crispr technique had been used on mice to precisely edit DNA at the moment of conception.

Prepared

He told the BBC that genetically modifying people is “not completely fanciful” and said the UK’s fertility regulator “will need to be prepared because they’re going to have to deal with this issue”.

In February this year, MPs and Peers voted to approve regulations allowing techniques to create three and four-parent babies, despite serious ethical and safety concerns. The babies will have genetically modified mitochondrial DNA.

During the House of Commons debate, Conservative MP Fiona Bruce said, “once these procedures that we’re asked to authorise today go ahead, there will be no going back for society”.