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Genome editing of human embryos – expert reaction

Posted in Science Alert: Experts Respond

Chinese researchers claim to have used to cutting edge techniques to tweak the genomes of human embryos.

The new research, as reported in Nature News and published in Protein and Cell, shows that editing of DNA in embryos is possible, but that many hurdles must be overcome before the technology can realistically be used in medical applications.

An excerpt from Nature News:

In a world first, Chinese scientists have reported editing the genomes of human embryos. The results are published in the online journal Protein & Cell and confirm widespread rumours that such experiments had been conducted — rumours that sparked a high-profile debate last month about the ethical implications of such work.

In the paper, researchers led by Junjiu Huang, a gene-function researcher at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, tried to head off such concerns by using ‘non-viable’ embryos, which cannot result in a live birth, that were obtained from local fertility clinics. The team attempted to modify the gene responsible for ?-thalassaemia, a potentially fatal blood disorder, using a gene-editing technique known as CRISPR/Cas9. The researchers say that their results reveal serious obstacles to using the method in medical applications.

Our colleagues at the Australian SMC collected the following expert commentary. Feel free to use these quotes in your reporting. If you would like to contact a New Zealand expert, please contact the SMC (04 499 5476; smc@sciencemediacentre.co.nz).

Dr Hannah Brown, Researcher at the Robinson Research Institute, the School of Paediatrics and Reproductive Health at the University of Adelaide and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics, comments:

“New genome editing tools including the CRISPR/Cas9 have created great excitement for biological scientists in many fields.  This technology allows researchers to use these molecular scissors (originally derived from bacteria) to remove and replace information in the DNA, not unlike cutting and pasting information from a word document.  This technology provides the possibility to replace faulty genes (or the DNA sequence that give us a particular characteristic) to “erase and repair” the faulty information causing disease.  Researchers have been using these molecular scissors routinely in human cells in a dish and in animal models, and even in animal embryos, but the research published in Protein Cell by the Chinese researchers is the first describing the technology in human embryos.

“The research is highly controversial for a number of reasons.  Firstly, research on human embryos is heavily restricted in Australia, and in other countries some level of regulation occurs.  Secondly, the ethical justification that the Chinese group used for performing this research in human embryos was that they used embryos that would not be able to yield a viable pregnancy.  In this case, they used donor embryos from a fertility clinic which has been fertilised by multiple sperm (the egg is very effective at stopping the penetration of more than one sperm at fertilisation, but occasionally this mechanism fails, and a “2-sperm fertilised” embryo with too much DNA is formed – these are not viable).

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