Gene-editing technology called CRISPR-Cas9 is at the center of a lawsuit that could have repercussions for the future of genetic engineering. This method of altering the genetic codes of human beings could be used for purposes many people consider to be unethical.
University of California-Berkeley researchers discovered the gene-editing tool. The method might be able to prevent some inherited diseases, relieving patients of the threat of many serious ailments. It might also be developed into techniques to treat HIV and cancer and could also play a role in developing new food products with greater yields, feeding people around the world.
However, the gene-editing tool could also be used to create "designer babies" who would be custom-created to their parents' specifications.
"The high school interns in my lab could, in fact, do it. But we're not doing it, even though we can. We won't go beyond a certain line. It's not appropriate ... We could change genes in babies. Something as simple as getting a blue-eyed baby instead of a brown-eyed baby. If we can do it, that means other labs can do it that aren't as constrained. And that worries me," said Jeanne Loring from the Center for Regenerative Medicine at the Scripps Research Institute.
In January 2015, researchers in China announced they had designed primate embryos with desired hereditary traits. Geneticists were able to alter the gender of the primate, along with genes related to immune system functions and metabolism.
Three months later, scientists in that nation began experiments on human embryos for the first time, attempting to eliminate beta thalassemia, a form of blood disease, from the developing organisms. While some of these tests were successful, others resulted in mutations in the embryos. The embryos used in the study were each fertilized by two sperms, meaning they could never have developed into full-fledged babies.
The patent for the gene-editing technology could be worth over a billion dollars, triggering a fight between UC and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Researchers at Harvard University and MIT currently control the patent to the technology, which also permits the owner to control commercial licensing. A legal team representing the University of California has filed a request asking the U.S. Patent Office to turn over that patent to a team of UC researchers.
The CRISPR/Cas9 technique allows genetic scientists to precisely and accurately alter genetic codes to a degree not possible using other methods.
A legal battle between the universities could take years to decide, and the loser in the first round of court cases is likely to appeal, lengthening the time spent in litigation.
Photo: Neil Palmer | Ciat | Flickr