Genetic engineering is a topic that has been plagued with controversies for years, with it being banned in many countries all over the world, Europe foremost on the list. So when China published its first report on gene-editing back in 2015, it faced its share of backlash from critics.
Regardless, the research continued, and it was expected that findings from the US would soon follow. Which it did. Shoukhrat Mitalipov from Oregon Health and Science University and his team have reportedly corrected defective genes that cause inherited diseases in "a large number of one-cell embryos" using CRISPR.
The same method and technology (CRISPR) had been previously used by the Chinese as well, but the process produced results with a defect called ‘mosaicism’. This meant that the edited genes were not evenly distributed within the embryo once it developed. The DNA changes they made were only taken up by some, not all, of the cells, the embryos developed. The embryos of course, never went to clinical trials, since they are forbidden by law.
Mitalipov and her team, however, seem to have found a way around the problem. By injecting the CRISPR segments into the egg at the same time as the sperm cells, they have claimed to have avoided causing mosaicism within the embryo.
One of the scientists familiar with the study told Tech Review: "It is proof of principle that it can work. They significantly reduced mosaicism. I don't think it's the start of clinical trials yet, but it does take it further than anyone has before."
The report is still awaiting publication and hence, details about the research are yet to be disclosed.
The Ethics of Genetic Engineering
So far, genetic engineering has been widely discussed and researched for mainly two issues – improving fertility treatments and correcting genetic diseases.
While these purposes are completely ethical and harmless on their own, many believe that opening the doors to widespread genetic engineering can give rise to more pressing ethical issues, the main being ‘designer babies’ – babies genetically modified to have superior characteristics.
The potentials within genetic modification are endless, some grayer in nature than others. But the real question posed by critics of the rapidly developing technology is that, in light of the first two purposes mentioned, is genetic engineering really required? Most genetically transmitted diseases are preventable and/or curable using currently available medical technology, making the technology in question redundant.
Nevertheless, the progress in the field is commendable, and might just end up doing more good than we’re currently anticipating 10 years from now.