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Human Gene Editing Experiment May Hold Key To Infertility And Genetic Disease Treatments

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Researchers from the Francis Crick Institute in London recently received the green light to use the latest gene editing technique CRISPR/Cas9 on "spare" IVF embryos. A team led by Dr. Kathy Niakan is set out to analyze what causes infertility and miscarriages in women.

The team wants to find out what vital genes are needed for the embryo to develop into a healthy baby. Findings from this groundbreaking research can lead to better treatments that targets various types of infertility and provide new hope for couples who are facing infertility.

Findings can also help couples whose medical history includes heritable disease such as sickle cell disease and muscular dystrophy. Sickle cell disease is a severe form of anemia that can be passed on from one generation to another. Muscular dystrophy is another hereditary condition marked by the degenerative weakening and deterioration of the muscles. The new research can eventually result in embryos that are free of hereditary diseases.

The approval from the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority in the UK is considered a milestone for the genome editing technique. However, the controversial technology carries implications that fuel the much heated debate on genome editing techniques. The new research will not use the edited spare IVF embryos to create genetically-modified babies. The edited embryos will be left to expire upon reaching the blastocyst stage.

The UK government's decision and Niakan's research are currently on the spotlight. Supporters, particularly infertility specialists, are excited for this medical advancement. It also has its share of critics, including religious and scientific groups who are concerned about the implications of "designer babies."

"It's unethical because it's going to result in the destruction of dozens of embryos that could otherwise be implanted and donated," said London's Christian Medical Fellowship CEO Dr. Peter Saunders who also highlighted the still unknown and unpredictable effects of genome editing that could be passed on to the future generations if implantation will soon be allowed.

In 2015, the failed and highly controversial Chinese research resulted in the cautionary tale of genome editing risks. A team of researchers from Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China used CRISPR/Cas9 technique on non-viable human embryos secured locally from fertility clinics. They wanted to edit the gene responsible for a fatal blood disorder called Beta thalassemia but ended up with many unintended, harmful mutations.

Photo: Katie Tegtmeyer | Flickr

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