Human Embryo Editing. It sounds like something from the mind of Heinlein or Frank Herbert. Imagine being able to pick and choose your child’s features via human embryo editing prior to the birth. Imagine being able to remove negative hereditary genetic factors from a human embryo so that its chances of developing a hereditary disease are a fraction of what they would have been. Some of it sounds like playing God. Some of it sounds like smart science. And some scientists in Sweden have brought us one step closer to human embryo editing.
Those Swedish scientists at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm have become the first to successfully edit genetic material in healthy human embryos. The scientists, led by biologist Fredrik Lanner, injected a gene-editing tool into human embryos that was intended to make extremely specific changes to that embryo’s genetic material. The human embryo injection is done at an extremely early stage, less than 48 hours after fertilization. So what are they changing in the human embryo’s DNA? That is not entirely clear. For now, the researchers say that they are hoping that the experiments they’re conducting will help them develop new methods for preventing miscarriages and for treating infertility, as well as to better understand human embryo development.
The human embryos used in the Swedish experiments could lead to pregnancy, but for the moment, they will not. The human embryos used were donated by couples that had undergone an in vitro fertilization process. The human embryos all contained an extra set of chromosomes, a protection technique that would make them unviable beyond a certain point in their development. (If this sounds eerily familiar, perhaps you’re remembering the scene in Jurassic Park where the scientist explains how they deny the dinosaur embryos a chromosome so they’re all female, thus regulating the mating process.) Thus, the human embryos in the Swedish experiments don’t last longer than two weeks.
Though, in theory, the new techniques developed for editing the genetic makeup of human embryos in Sweden could lead to parents picking and choosing their future children’s DNA makeup, Dr. Lanner has stated that he is firmly against the idea. (Which brings to mind another part of Jurassic Park, when Dr. Ian Malcolm says, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could they didn’t stop to think about whether or not they should.”)
Right now, Lanner and the other Swedish scientists are using their human embryo injections to “deactivate” certain genes that are involved in the very early stages of human development. When asked what the reasons for the experiments are, Lanner and his team are attempting to learn more about the genetic roles in development, and about the reasons behind fertility in specific.
Despite the controversies in human embryo genetic editing, there has been more and more research being conducted across the globe in this groundbreaking field. Last year, there was an international summit on human embryo gene editing. The results of the summit led to researchers suggesting that there ought to be limits put on the studies of human embryo gene editing. Some of those limits stated that no gene editing should be done as of yet on embryos that will be used in pregnancies. The summit also released guidelines stating that it would be “irresponsible” to perform human embryo germ line editing. This means that there should be no changes in the human embryo’s genes that could be passed down from one generation to the next.
So, for now, if you were hoping on picking the hair or eye color of your next baby, or hoping to subtract a genetic predisposition to early onset Alzheimer’s Disease or breast cancer utilizing human embryo gene editing, you’re going to have to wait a bit longer.
[Featured Image by China Photos/Getty Images]