First editing of human embryos carried out in United States

(Reuters) – Technology that allows alteration of genes in a human embryo has been used for the first time in the United States, according to Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) in Portland, which carried out the research.

The OHSU research is believed to have broken new ground both in the number of embryos experimented upon and by demonstrating it is possible to safely and efficiently correct defective genes that cause inherited diseases, according to Technology Review, which first reported the news.

None of the embryos were allowed to develop for more than a few days, according to the report.

Some countries have signed a convention prohibiting the practice on concerns it could be used to create so-called designer babies.

Results of the peer-reviewed study are expected to be published soon in a scientific journal, according to OHSU spokesman Eric Robinson.

The research, led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov, head of OHSU’s Center for Embryonic Cell and Gene Therapy, involves a technology known as CRISPR that has opened up new frontiers in genetic medicine because of its ability to modify genes quickly and efficiently.

CRISPR works as a type of molecular scissors that can selectively trim away unwanted parts of the genome, and replace it with new stretches of DNA.

Scientists in China have published similar studies with mixed results.

In December 2015, scientists and ethicists at an international meeting held at the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in Washington said it would be “irresponsible” to use gene editing technology in human embryos for therapeutic purposes, such as to correct genetic diseases, until safety and efficacy issues are resolved.

But earlier this year, NAS and the National Academy of Medicine said scientific advances make gene editing in human reproductive cells “a realistic possibility that deserves serious consideration.”

(Reporting By Deena Beasley; Editing by Michael Perry)

Groups call human embryo editing ‘a line we must not cross’

Scientists, scholars and advocates are among those calling for a worldwide ban on the genetic manipulation of human embryos, warning the practice would “irrevocably alter the nature of the human species and society.”

The words appeared in an open letter on the website of the Center for Genetics and Society on Monday, a day before the International Summit on Human Gene Editing began in Washington.
The letter accompanied a report that the Center for Genetics and Society jointly released with the Friends of the Earth, in which the groups call for a ban on editing genes in human embryos.

Modern advancements have brought humans close than ever to creating “genetically modified humans,” but those who signed the open letter agree that humans should not engineer genes that will be passed on to their children, particularly with so little known about long-term effects.

“Genetic modification of children was recently the stuff of science fiction,” Pete Shanks, a consulting researcher with the Center for Genetics and Society and the report’s lead author, said in a statement. “But now, with new technology, the fantasy could become reality. Once the process begins, there will be no going back. This is a line we must not cross.”

The most pertinent technological advancement in the field is CRISPR/Cas9, a cost-effective tool that allows researchers to search for a specific DNA sequence in a cell. Once it finds what it’s looking for, the tool can be used to cut out the DNA strand and paste a different one into its spot.

While those who signed the open letter acknowledge that human gene editing could have some potentially good applications, like treating damaged tissues in a grown person, they wrote there isn’t any justification for tweaking the genes of future children. They wrote that parents who want to prevent their children from inheriting genetic diseases, one of the major arguments used in favor of gene editing, can usually do that another way — like a traditional embryo screening.

The letter also states that allowing any kind of reproductive cell editing “would open the door to an era of high-tech consumer eugenics in which affluent parents seek to choose socially preferred qualities for their children,” or so-called designer babies.

“At a time when economic inequality is surging worldwide, heritable genetic modification could inscribe new forms of inequality and discrimination onto the human genome,” the letter states.

Scientists are expected to discuss recent developments and technologies in human gene editing at this week’s summit. They’re also slated to discuss potential ethical and legal concerns, weigh the risks and benefits of research and examine regulations, according to the summit’s website.