February 23, 2024

Is human gene editing around the corner?

No, says a stem cell scientist

The development of CRISPR gene editing technology has quickly led to calls for modifying the human germline. In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Stanford medical researcher Henry I. Miller declared that the time had come. It was wrong to deprive desperate parents who are carriers of genetic diseases of their chance to have healthy children. “The technology is arguably at the stage where clinical trials could be undertaken to see whether gene-edited human embryos can develop into healthy babies.”

However, stem cell expert Paul Knoepfler disagreed strongly on his popular blog, “The Niche”. He argues that the science is very far from perfect.

It’s unwise to rush into human clinical research of any kind and that’s especially true if it includes heritable genetic modification. You first need reproducible, rigorous data to back you up from sufficiently power studies and a good sense of anticipated risks.

Furthermore, it seems irresponsible to experiment with human lives.

“what happens to the unhealthy or deceased CRISPR’d humans you made in your experiment that didn’t turn out the way you had hoped? We just say “oops”? Or what if the babies seem OK at first, but then later they become ill or die? These are not fun questions to ask or ponder, but they are deeply important if we are going into this with our eyes open.”

Although, like most stem cell scientists, Knoepfler is not opposed in principle to germline modification if worked perfectly, he believes that talk of “designer babies” and altering the human genome is mostly hype at the moment:

In the end, heritable human CRISPR is still largely a wild idea whose time has definitely not come today. From scientific and medical as well as perspectives, it’s not something close to being ready to even just test reproductively in humans in a responsible way. Unfortunately, again it could be tried in an irresponsible manner at just about any time now.

Creative commons
gene editing
human germline modification