The newest developments in editing genes in human embryos will come from the United Kingdom after scientists from the Francis Crick Institute were granted approval to work on human gene editing in embryos. In early February, the British government’s fertility regulator granted a research application for institute researchers who will reportedly use gene editing techniques to analyze the earliest stages of embryo development in the first weeks after conception.
We’ve discussed gene editing techniques involving CRISPR and Cas9 in recent weeks here on IPWatchdog, especially their use in combating HIV/AIDS. However, the use of the Cas9 enzyme to snip genetic code of specific CRISPR clustered repeats, or to insert new code, could eventually be used to edit code in embryos, ridding future generations of inherited diseases like cystic fibrosis or sickle cell anemia. The use of CRISPR-Cas9 has also been suggested as a next-generation platform for drug delivery.
England isn’t the only part of the world where embryonic gene editing research has been finding a foothold. In early 2015, researchers out of China published a paper reporting experiments in using CRISPR-Cas9 to edit a specific gene in an embryo’s genetic code responsible for a potentially life-threatening blood disorder. The research team found serious obstacles that need to be addressed before CRISPR-Cas9 can be used to edit genetic code in an embryo on a wide scale; these issues include low retention of genetic material and unintended mutations when a Cas9 enzyme misses its target.
There are proposed ethical issues to the use of CRISPR-Cas9 in editing genetic code, including unintended consequences from gene alterations that could be transmitted to future generations as well as the bioethical issue of making genetic choices for an embryo which may be unhappy with those choices when it grows into an adult. Many of these issues came up at the recent International Summit on Human Gene Editing held in Washington, DC, early last December. Co-hosted by scientific agencies from America, England and China, the three-day conference included panels on applications of gene editing techniques, societal implications and international governance issues.
Here in America, the National Institutes of Health do not fund scientific initiatives into the editing of embryonic genetic code because of federal prohibitions against scientific research that requires the destruction of embryonic material. This has been used in the past to ban federally funded stem cell research, a prohibition which was effectively ended by President Barack Obama in 2009. The regulatory quandary with CRISPR-Cas9, however, is that unlike with stem cell research, where embryonic destruction has occurred before federal dollars are spent, CRISPR-Cas9 actively involves the destruction of genetic code, thus running afoul of NIH regulations. State agencies may be able to effect some research initiatives and reports out of California indicate that the state’s stem cell research institute is considering whether to fund research similar to the recently approved British study. Interestingly, those reports also indicate that, although it’s legal to start a pregnancy with a genetically-modified embryo in America, it’s illegal to do so in England.
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