Scientists To Genetically Modify Embryos: Could This Lead To 'Designer Babies'?


The controversial topic of using genetic manipulation on embryos sparks again when a scientist appeals for permission to use gene editing techniques to understand the cause of miscarriages.

In Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA), the government's fertility watchdog for permission to use a genetic manipulation technique, British scientist Dr. Kathy Niakan of London's Francis Crick Institute applied the Crispr/Cas9 technique to understand why there are women who suffer from repeated miscarriages.

He made it by studying the genetic science behind placenta development and the possibility that a genetic defect, affecting placental formation, may be the culprit. They also want to use the technique to make embryonic stem cells. If the team's permission will be granted, they will be the second in the world to attempt such a technique, next to China when scientists attempted to modify the gene that caused beta thalassaemia, a hereditary blood disorder. 

Crispr/Cas9 can alter the genetic code by changing or deleting some genes in the trophectoderm or outer cells during the early stage embryos.  These can be done on egg cells fertilized artificially; and if successfully modified, can theoretically be implanted back into the womb.

However, in application, successful gene editing and implanting these designer embryos is fraught with high risks and controversy. 

The first study in China led by Dr. Junjiu Hang was a failure. Of the 86 samples used, only 28 embryos' genes changed, and there were unpredicted mutations that occurred. 

"If you want to do it in normal embryos, you need to be close to 100 per cent," Hang explained. "That's why we stopped. It's too immature." Many experts take this experiment as a cautionary tale for those wanting to conduct the same research.

"This news emphasizes the need for an immediate global ban on the creation of genetically modified designer babies," Dr David King of the watchdog Human Genetics Alert said.

Niakan is quick to assure that the experiment will, in no way, consider altering genes on the embryos, and that the license will be used for pure research purposes. 

"We are not contemplating altering genes for clinical purposes - we are interested in basic mechanisms of embryonic development," Niakan clarified.  "If any of our discoveries suggest ways to improve embryo development after IVF (in virtro fertilization), or to improve implantation frequency, or to prevent miscarriage, these would involve conventional approaches, not the manipulation of genes." 

The embryos that will be used are donated non-viable ones and will be destroyed after the study.

Photo: Krisztina Konczos | Flickr

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