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Genome Editing

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Scientists are getting closer to what appears to be their goal of playing God.

The latest comes from an article in the February 15 issue of Time Magazine that say the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority of the United Kingdon (HFEA) has given permission to a scientist to begin experimenting genome editing on human embryos DNA using a new editing tool that is simple, easy to use and effective. The tool is called CRISPR-Cas9 and allows the user to find and correct mutations that can lead to deadly diseases.

Genome editing has been done successfully on animals and there are reports that Chinese scientists have done some editing using human embryos. Some scientists have called for a moratorium on DNA editing in human embryos but others say if successful it could be a “medical Miracle” that could cure all manner of diseases like Alzheimer’s and Cancer. That’s all well and good but it could also be used to edit out factors that effect quality of life or even design what kind of child would result.

The article does point out that many scientists are nervous about the process because editing DNA in an embryo or in what are called germ-line cells like those that exist in sperm and eggs are permanent and would be passed on down the following generations and no one is sure of the long term consequences. The article quotes some scientists who point out the role of only a small number of genes are understood and they “have no clue” of the role of most genes.

The London scientist who has been given permission to begin human genome editing is Kathy Niakan who is with the Francis Crick Institute in London. “We want to understand the biology of how to make a successful embryo,” she is quoted in the article.

The article doesn’t mention the source for the embryos which are destroyed after seven days and that makes other scientists nervous and raises ethical questions in the minds of some. Calum MacKellar, research director at the Scottish Council of Human Bioethics says you create a new person when you edit genes. “What you are saying, in a way, is that some people should not exist and that other people should exist. When you start to go down that road, you hit the eugenics field,” he is quoted in the article.

Science has made huge advances since the discovery of DNA and the mapping of the human genome but there is much not yet understood. It does hold the promise of curing some of the deadliest diseases afflicting human life but as the Time Magazine article notes, no one really knows what happens down stream if you permanently edit what amounts to God’s work (my words not theirs).