Kathy Niakan, a researcher at the Francis Crick Institute in London has received permission to use Crispr, a powerful gene editing tool, to edit human embryos.
Crispr or Crispr-Cas9 can perform remarkable tasks and has revolutionized the scientific world since its discovery. It has also sparked an incredible ethical debate as it has the ability to modify the human genome.
Why is this so controversial?
Firstly, Kathy is editing human embryos. If implanted into a womb, they could deve lop into a baby.
Kathy plans to use Crispr’s cut-and-paste technology to replace faulty genes that potentially cause infertility. The embryos she is using are “leftovers” from in vitro fertilization. These extra embryos will not be implanted into a uterus and will be left to die seven days after fertilization.
Any changes made in the germ line will be passed on to future generations. That means we’re not only changing the unborn baby’s genes, but his or her child’s and grandchild’s all without their consent.
This is not the first use of gene-editing in humans. In 2015, Chinese scientists attempted to combat beta thalossemia, a blood disorder caused by a faulty gene.
Where will it end?
Designer babies are a valid concern. Parents can literally choose things like eye and hair colour and even risk for diseases like Huntington’s and cancer.
If gene-editing becomes mainstream to the point where doctors routinely offer to remove “obesity genes” or “breast cancer genes” in a patient’s offspring and replace them with “intelligence” or “athleticism”, how many of us would say no?
Finally, Crispr is an unbelievably remarkable tool, but it is accompanied by many ethical questions and concerns that must be addressed.