December 8, 2021

First American success with editing human embryos

Shoukhrat Mitalipov, of Oregon Health and Science University, has successfully edited a gene for a genetic disease in scores of human embryos

American scientists have been jealous of Chinese rivals who have used CRISPR gene-editing techniques on human embryos. This week, however, it was revealed that scientists at a lab in Portland, Oregon, have successfully used the technique on human embryos.

According to a scoop by MIT Technology Review, a team led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov of Oregon Health and Science University successfully edited a gene for a genetic disease in scores of human embryos which had been created with sperm donated by carriers of the gene. None of the embryos were allowed to live for more than a few days.

The research is still unpublished and Dr Mitalipov refused to comment.

Chinese scientists have published three papers describing how they had edited human embryos. But it turns out that the technique is not as straightforward as they hoped. As the embryo developed, they found that not all of the cells had been “edited” and that there were some “off target” effects. According to the MIT Technology Review, Mitalipov’s technique has overcome these difficulties.

Genetic enhancement, or “designer babies”, is still illegal in the United States. However, equipped with Mitalipov’s techniques, scientists elsewhere could offer this service. As the MIT Technology Review points out:

… the creation of a gene-edited person could be attempted at any moment, including by IVF clinics operating facilities in countries where there are no such legal restrictions.

In any case,  a report by the US National Academy of Sciences in February has already green-lighted research on germline modification, provided it is used only for curing genetic diseases.

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