Researchers have successfully edited the genes of viable human embryos to repair mutations that cause a dangerous heart condition. The team published their controversial research in the journal Nature.
The versatile gene-editing technique known as CRISPR-Cas9 is no stranger to headlines. Scientists have already used it to breed tiny pigs, detect disease, and even embed GIFs in bacteria. As our understanding of the process grows more advanced and sophisticated, many researchers have wondered how it could be applied to human beings.
For the new study, an international team of researchers fertilized healthy human eggs with sperm from men with a disease called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a condition that can lead to sudden death in young people. The mutation responsible for the disease affects a gene called MYBPC3. It’s a dominant mutation, which means that an embryo only needs one bad copy of the gene to develop the disease.
Or, considered another way, this means that scientists could theoretically remove the disease by fixing that one bad copy.
Eighteen hours after fertilizing the eggs, the researchers went back in and used CRISPR-Cas9 to snip out mutated MYBPC3 genes in some of the embryos and replace them with healthy copies. Three days later, they checked back in to see how their subjects—which were, at this point, still microscopic balls of cells—had fared.
The treatment seemed successful. Compared to subjects in the control group, a significant number of edited embryos appeared mutation- and disease-free. The researchers also found no evidence that their intervention had led to any unwanted new mutations, although it is possible that the mutations were there and overlooked.
Our ability to edit human genes is improving by the day. But, many ethicists argue, just because we can do it doesn’t mean that we should. The United States currently prohibits germline editing of human embryos by government-funded researchers. But there’s no law against such experimentation in privately funded projects like this one.
The same day the new study was published, an international committee of genetics experts issued a consensus statement advising against editing any embryo intended for implantation (pregnancy and birth).
"While germline genome editing could theoretically be used to prevent a child being born with a genetic disease, its potential use also raises a multitude of scientific, ethical, and policy questions,” Derek T. Scholes of the American Society of Human Genetics said in a statement. “These questions cannot all be answered by scientists alone, but also need to be debated by society."
Ethicists and sociologists are concerned by the slippery slope of trying to build a better human. Many people with chronic illness and disability live happy, complete lives and report that they’re limited more by discrimination than by any medical issues.
Disability studies expert Lennard Davis of the University of Illinois says we can’t separate scientific decisions from our society’s history of violence against, and oppression of, disabled and sick people.
“A lot of this terrific science and technology has to take into account that the assumption of what life is like for people who are different is based on prejudice against disability,” he told Nature in 2016.
Rosemary Garland-Thomson is co-director of the Disability Studies Initiative at Emory University. Speaking to Nature, she said we are at a cultural and ethical precipice: “At our peril, we are right now trying to decide what ways of being in the world ought to be eliminated.”