Amid heated debate over the ethics of gene modification, Chinese researchers have been the first to report successfully editing the genome of human embryos. Though non-viable by design, the embryos have heritable traits. Were edited embryos used in reproduction, the genomic changes could affect future generations.
Researchers at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, led by Junjiu Huang, utilized the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing technique to modify the genes that control a rare blood disorder, β-thalassaemia. The process was performed on embryos created for in vitro fertilization that had an extra set of chromosomes, thus precluding live birth.
This research has reignited the debate on gene modification. Critics are concerned that gene modification on human embryos could lead to unsafe and unethical practices. Moreover, the technique that was used has shown inefficiencies – out of 100 embryos, 71 survived and 54 were genetically tested; out of those that were tested only 28 were successfully spliced. Nonetheless, the CRISPR/Cas9 technique is easy to use, and continued research in this area seems likely. Four groups in China are pursuing similar embryonic research.