In a landmark decision that brings no shortage of ethical issues to the table, the United Kingdom has approved the limited use of human embryos in a gene manipulation and editing study of a groundbreaking technique known as CRISPR.
Gene editing and a host of ethical concerns
The mapping of the human genome was a scientific achievement worthy of a Nobel Prize. Work that began in 1974, saw two Brits and an American awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2002. The three of them, collectively, identified key genes relating to organ development and programmed cell death. Now, nearly 15 years after that research was acknowledged by the Nobel committee, the ethical arguments inherent in “man playing God” are arising based on a new technique that allows for the removal of specific genes.
While presidential hopefuls in the United States are flitting about the state of Iowa in an effort to convince caucus participants that they are the most conservative, the UK has gone a different route and allowed for the use of human embryos in testing that opponents feel could forever alter the human condition.
The U.K.’s Human Fertilization and Embryo Authority (HFEA) recently approved the use of human embryos to test the effectiveness of a the CRISPR technique to edit the very things that determine who we are, DNA.
This approval, however, comes with a number of caveats. Namely, the altered embryos will not be allowed to survive for more than 14 days and will not be implanted into a woman that could make the researchers creation become a living, breathing human being following gestation.
Led by Kather Niakan, a biologist at the Francis Crick institute, a team of researchers will be allowed to edit the genes of a human embryo for the first time.
“I promise you she has no intention of the embryos ever being put back into a woman for development,” Robin Lovell-Badge, group leader at the Crick Institute, told TIME magazine in a recent interview. “That wouldn’t be the point. The point is to understand things about basic human biology. We know lots about how the early mouse embryo develops in terms of how various cell lineages give rise to the embryo or to [other] tissue that make up the placenta. But we know very little about how this happens in the human embryo.”
This ethical can of worms or figurative Pandora’s Box has, as you read, the researchers on the back foot defending the practice rather than speaking of the science behind their research and potential benefits in the future.
CRISPR’s gene use since 2012
The technique which emerged in 2012 allows scientists to manipulate or cut out genes as if they were using a skilled surgeon’s scalpel rather than hacking through a genetic rain forest with a machete in search of Dr. Livingstone.
Presumably, the technique could allow for the creation of something that nature never designed. Or, conversely, as humans now have this technique in their toolbox, exactly what nature allows for but simply doesn’t create on its own.
Don’t like this gene, cut it out and replace it. You can see the ethical conundrum this technique has now brought to the table.
The ease by which researchers can mix and match genes is staggering and, not surprisingly, the medical community was shocked when last year a group of Chinese researchers did just that. The Chinese team succeeded more in shocking the world than they did in genetically engineering some race of super humans based on their use of flawed embryos. But, the cat’s bag was opened and now we’re left with the debate.
While the administration of George W. Bush introduced a moratorium in the United States on federal funds being used to advance this technique or work with human embryos, this does not extend to the rest of the world.
While president Obama lifted the ban on human embryo research in 2009, this does not extend to the use of CRISPR with federal funds and remains strictly both taboo and illegal.
While Dr. Niakan trained in the United States, there is a reason that her research took her back to the United Kingdom to look at genes that are responsible for embryonic development. By editing the genome, she hopes to get a better understanding of what actually is necessary to make life.
While it may seem counter-intuitive, by cutting she hopes to get a better understanding of growth in specific tissues that comprise the early human embryo.
The approval of her work studying infertility may seem benign on its own, it’s just not. Outside of what she may learn about infertility to the potential benefit of millions, her work will naturally make us question what limitations, or lack of limitations, science should have imposed on it in this Brave New World.