New study confirms rumors in the scientific community, heralds new debate over the ethics of human genetic engineering
By James Vincent on April 23, 2015
For the first time ever, scientists have reported editing the genetic code in human embryos. The work, carried out by researchers in China, sought to remove a gene responsible for a potentially fatal blood disorder using embryos sourced from a local fertility clinic. Although the study purposely used a type of embryo incapable of developing into a live birth, scientists have warned about the ethical implications of the work. The technique used to edit the genetic material — known as CRISPR — is potentially capable of not only removing diseases from the human genome, but also enhancing traits such as intelligence and beauty.
Nature News notes that rumors about the work, led by Junjiu Huang of Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, have been circulating for a while in the scientific community. Scientists responded preemptively in March, calling for a temporary worldwide ban on the use of CRISPR to edit human genes until the implications had been better examined. In an article published in the journal Science, leading biologists warned about the dangers of altering the human germline (meaning permanent changes to the egg, sperm, or embryo that can be passed on to future generations). They note that the "enormous opportunities" of such genetic engineering come with "unknown risks to human health and well-being."