Despite all the downplaying –US scientists cross a new threshold towards CRISPR babies

More than two years ago, in May 2015, the science journal Natureposed an important question: „Where in the world could the first CRISPR baby be born?“By interviewing experts and government agencies in 12 countries, each with a history of well-financed biological research, the magazine tried to capture a cross-comparison snapshot of the different legal frameworks with regard to gene-editing procedures. The responses revealed a wide range of approaches. In some countries, experimenting with human embryos at all would be a criminal offence, whereas in others, almost anything is permissible

However, it became also clear that in most countries state decision-makers are not ableto keep up withthe dynamics of scientific research and the associated technological change (and CRISPR is just one example). While legislators need years to shape frameworks for new technologies, the technologies have long since evolved and have often madethese framework superfluous already.

How CRISPR or by its full-name „clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats“ works has already been quite extensively subject in this blog. The regular reader knows that with the help of this new technology, biologists can replace, alter or remove any sequence of genes quickly, precisely and very cheaply. These prospects have prompted widespread concern and discussion among scientists, ethicists and patients. Fears loom that if genome editing becomes acceptable in the clinic to stave off disease, it will inevitably come to be used to introduce, enhance or eliminate traits for non-medical reasons, e.g. to improve the intelligence or external appeal of a person. Ethicists are concerned that unequal access to such technologies could lead to genetic classism. And targeted changes to a person’s genome would be passed on for generations, through the germ line (sperm and eggs), fueling fears that embryo editing could have lasting, unintended consequences. The U.S. intelligence community last year thus framed CRISPR as a potential „weapon of mass destruction.”

In the West, such possibilities are still facing significant legal hurdles, and there are generally great concerns about such forms of eugenics. Unlike in China, where eugenic efforts are embraced with much more open arms. For example, more than two years ago, a team of Chinese researchers announced that they had experimented with CRISPR in order to reach a modification of genes in human embryos.

Now a further milestone has been achieved on the way to CRISPR babies: At the end of July, the first known attempt at creating genetically modified human embryos in the United States has been reported by a team of researchers led by the controversial biologist Shoukhrat Mitalipov in Portland, Oregon (who has already made himself a name for his efforts on human cloning for the purpose of creating stem cells). Mitalipov and his colleagues were able to demonstrate that, unlike the Chinese experiments, it is quite possible to safely and efficiently correct defective genes that cause hereditary diseases through the use of CRISPR.

The earlier Chinese publications, although limited in scope, found CRISPR caused editing errors and that the desired DNA changes were taken up not by all the cells of an embryo, only some. These effects, called „off targeting“ and „mosaicism“, lent weight to arguments that germline editing would be an unsafe way to create a person. But Mitalipov and his colleagues are said to have convincingly shown that it is possible to avoid both mosaicism and “off-target” effects.

Mitalipov’s concept is similar to one tested in mice before, where the mouse gene for coat color has been changed from the expected brown to white. The paper on this research, published at the end of 2014, somewhat prophetically said: “This or analogous approaches may one day enable human genome targeting or editing during very early development.”

Still the U.S. National Academy of Sciences draws a red line at genetic enhancements – like higher intelligence. “Genome editing to enhance traits or abilities beyond ordinary health raises concerns about whether the benefits can outweigh the risks, and about fairness if available only to some people,” said Alta Charo, co-chair of the NAS’s study committee and professor of law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.In the U.S., any effort to turn agene-edited embryo into a baby has been blocked by lawmakers. How long this attitude continues to holds we will see in the next few years, perhaps even months. And despite such barriers, the creation of CRISPR babies could still happen at any time in countries where there are no such legal restrictions. Mitalipov’s experiments have certainly contributed to this.

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