Last year marked the start of medical teams in the US undertaking experiments in gene editing. With scientists around the world pushing boundaries with the latest research, it’s almost inevitable that gene editing will become commonplace within the medical world.
Chinese researchers first announced that they would begin editing human genes back in 2015 and just two years later the US followed suit. Led by a leading embryologist, it marked another step in being able to apply the knowledge to a clinical application that could drastically change the way certain inherited illnesses are prevented. Since that announcement, gene editing has made significant strides forward.
For the first time last year, scientists used a gene editing technique to correct a gene mutation in human embryos to the hereditary blood disorder beta thalassemia. The initial study improved mutations at a rate of around 20% but it lays the foundation for further progress as it gains international attention. Numerous other studies are assessing how gene editing can be used for other genetic conditions.
Researchers are being careful to steer away from accusations of creating ‘designer babies’, with the sole aim of embryo modification so far focused on correcting defective genes that causes inherited diseases. Experiments have so far used CRISPR injected into the egg at the same time as the sperm, removing the potential of mosaicism problems to occur, as the CRISPR tools work from the moment the egg is fertilised. Mosaicism problems, where some cells are not edited, were reported in the initial human embryo trials in China but the problem-solving solution in the US has removed this issue, although the eggs were only developed for a few days.
With gene editing technology and knowledge growing, it’s an area that’s inevitably going to boom in size. However, there are of course concerns that have been raised and some groups that outright oppose the use of any type of gene editing. So far, no babies that have benefitted from gene editing technology have been born but over the next couple of years it’s likely to happen. When it does, the debate will no doubt intensify.
While controversial, gene editing holds lots of potential for removing inherited conditions completely. Is it a medical area that researchers should be pursuing in your opinion?