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.
From science fiction to fiction: the ability to choose your genes and your children’s genes is on the horizon and it has raised some serious concerns. Burgeoning advancements in genetic science have sparked widespread discussions. The UN’s International Bioethics Committee (IBC) has issued a report that focuses on the moral and practical implications of gene manipulation. The benefits of genomic “editing” are well known. Today’s scientists can now edit a person’s genome to treat or even cure illnesses. But many scientist, government ministers, and lawyers agree that this raises serious moral questions, including concerns about scientists “play[ing] god.” But morality is not the only concern. Genetic editing, particularly when applied to the germline, can change inherited traits, leading to unforeseeable consequences for future generations.
In addition, the IBC is concerned with direct-to-consumer genetic test kits. These kits come at a price, informed consent. Those who take the test, and learn about their own DNA often lack the medical and genetic counseling to react knowledgeably to the test results. The IBC report has called for a moratorium until proper public debate can consider the risks and the benefits of genomic editing. Nevertheless, the line between science fiction and science is wearing thin.
Prominent “gene editing” scientists have called for a freeze on genetic experiments that alter the DNA of human sperm, eggs and embryos. Concern in the scientific community spread following publication of an article in the MIT Technology Review that chronicled efforts of three groups to genetically alter human embryos.
The concerned scientists published a plea titled “Don’t edit the human germ line” in the journal Nature (the article can be viewed at http://www.nature.com/news/don-t-edit-the-human-germ-line-1.17111). This group of scientists is involved in experiments involving genome-editing in non-reproductive cells. They fear that unlike their work, the implications of editing the DNA of human embryos will have irreversible repercussions that could be passed to future generations. They note that modifying the DNA of human reproductive cells could be used for cosmetic rather than therapeutic purposes. This raises ethical and safety concerns.
The scientists call for an agreement within the community to ban modifying the DNA of human reproductive cells.
Within the next two years British scientists are confident that they will be able to prevent mitochondrial disease which effects 1,000 to 4,000 children in the U.S. However, the treatment would result in babies with three biological parents.
The procedure would allow doctors to use material from two women and one man with the goal of producing healthy embryos. Mitochondria mutations are inherited maternally, and scientists believe that they can help women who carry mutated genes by using the target couple’s “nuclear DNA” while substituting healthy mitochondrial DNA from another female donor.
There are legal and ethical questions that must be addressed before this type of procedure would be allowed in Britain. But the outlook for approval is bright considering the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority group has reported that evidence “does not suggest that these techniques are unsafe.”
New York State Assembly Member, Linda Rosenthal, is the sponsor of a bill that would require genetically modified food, otherwise known as “GMO’s,” to be labeled as such. Even though the bill has bipartisan support now, this is the second time it has been proposed; the bill was voted down in June of 2013. States such as Connecticut and Maine have enacted GMO labeling laws. However, neither of the states’ laws on GMO labeling will go into effect until other states in the Northeast region of the U.S. enact similar legislation. Recently, a relatively similar bill was voted down in New Hampshire, but in New Hampshire the effect of the law would not have been contingent upon the actions of surrounding states.
This week in San Diego, California, plastic surgeons will meet to discuss the future of their industry. The head of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, Dr. Bob Murphy, states that stem cell therapy can be used in elective procedures, as well as reconstructive procedures. Dr. Murphy went on to say that perhaps, one day, stem cells might make it possible for patients to regrow breasts after mastectomies.
Cryo-Save Group N.V. is the premier international stem cell storage company. It has been 25 years since the first umbilical cord blood transplant, and the company now stores more than 250,000 stem cell samples within its walls. Cryo-Save has the storage capacity for up to one million stem cell samples. Also, it is capable of processing up to 30,000 stem cell samples per year. On its website, Cryo-Save states that stem cell therapy is capable of treating many diseases and will be able to treat many more in the future.
On September 27, 2013 the National Institute of Health (NIH) announced that it is seeking public comment on draft proposals regarding how researchers should share data from genomic research projects. The goals of the proposal are: to protect the privacy of participants in human subject research; to protect intellectual property rights; and to promote data-sharing in order to advance genomic research. Under the proposal researchers would be able to combine data from various projects, which would enhance the value of the scientific data collected. The public may submit comments to the NIH until November 20, 2013.
Dengue fever is a tropical disease that is transmitted to humans via mosquitos, and it is prevalent in 100 countries worldwide. Dengue fever may have serious consequences and can be fatal. There is no vaccine or cure, and because the virus is only transmitted to humans and no other species, there were no animal models available to study the disease. To address this problem, researchers from MIT and the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology have created a “humanized mouse.” These mice have features of the human immune system and may be infected with Dengue fever. As a result, the researchers discovered that a major symptom of the virus is blood platelet depletion. The study has been referred to as a major breakthrough in discerning how Dengue fever operates.
Professor of biomedical sciences at Yale University, James Rothman, professor of molecular and cellular biology at the University of California, Berkeley, Randy Schekman and physiology professor at Stanford, Thomas C. Suedhof have been granted a $1.25 million dollar prize by the Nobel Assembly. The three individuals will share the prize for their research which “revealed the exquisitely precise control system for the transport and delivery of cellular cargo.” The discoveries have led to better ways to diagnose patients, because disturbances in the transport system contribute to dangerous medical conditions, such as diabetes, neurological diseases and immunological disorders.