Earlier this year, the medical science industry was left aghast by the revelation that a team of scientists in China had manipulated human embryos for the first time in history. The team, led by scientist Junjiu Huang, revealed that they had produced embryos capable of modifying the gene which is responsible for the fatal blood disorder Thalassaemia (a group of inherited blood disorders where the haemoglobin in the blood is abnormal). The announcement caused a wave of contempt to spread across the industry, with critics branding China the ‘Wild West’ of genetic research. This disapproval was down to a wide spread fear that genetic modification of this type could lead to the onset of a ‘Eugenic Future’ – a society where genetically modified or ‘designer babies’ are a genuine possibility.
Just, a few months down the line Kathy Niakan, a stem cell scientist at the Francis Crick Institute in London, has submitted a request to the government’s fertility regulator for a license to carry out genetic modification on human embryos in the UK. The experiment would use surplus embryos donated by IVF couples in order to gain a much deeper understanding of how a healthy human embryo develops. The proposed research would use a genome editing process known as ‘Crispr-Cas9’. This procedure was developed from the way that bacteria attack viruses. When bacteria attacks a virus it snips away part of the genetic code which then renders the virus ineffective. The Crispr-Cas9 uses a protein derived from bacteria which is then attached to the enzyme known as Cas9. This then aligns with the faulty section of DNA and cuts both ends of the DNA double helix and removes the highlighted faulty gene. The section is then replaced or repaired by another molecule which is introduced at the same time.
Although accepting that genetic modification may be safe, medically justifiably and ethically acceptable in the future, in an attempt to settle critics’ doubts and fears, the scientists behind the proposed study have assured people that there is no intention beyond research purposes. They have emphasised that the sole purpose of the study would be to explore what genes are present in the very first days of human fertilisation and could that this could help to understand why some women have miscarriages. If deemed justifiable, Kathy Niakan would be granted a license for her experiment providing the embryos are destroyed within 14 days.
Advocates of this type of gene editing believe that such research could be crucial in facilitating the eradication of detrimental inherited diseases. Whereas many others want a worldwide ban on the research to be put in place amid fears that it would become a ‘slippery slope’ towards genetically modified babies.
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