As announced in April, Swedish scientist, Fredrik Lanner from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm has started work on genetically modifying human embryos using CRISPR without considering the ethical and safety questions often raised by such research.
He wants “to discover more about the way in which genes regulate early embryo development” in order to propose new techniques to treat infertility and prevent miscarriage. He wants “to find out more about embryo stem cells” to develop cell therapies. To do this, he “is using ‘healthy’ embryos donated by couples following IVF treatment at Karolinska University Hospital”. Using CRISPR-Cas9, he is “methodically” modifying a series of genes previously identified “as being crucial for embryo development”.All of his research is under wraps until the results are published. He has used “at least a dozen embryos” to date, which he “destroys before the 14th day”, but he wants to “refine the technique” even further based on these initial findings. He is “confident” and considers himself “privileged”.
He is keen to point out that he does not take this technology “lightly”, and is “against the idea of designer babies”. However, he believes that “basic research is required and morally acceptable”.
These studies are largely controversial in the light of objections to human embryo research, a fear of designer babies and concerns regarding the safety of the technique. Introducing DNA modifications to human embryos could accidentally introduce errors into their genome, inadvertently creating a new disease that could be transmitted to subsequent generations. Marcy Darnovsky, Head of the Californian Center for Genetics and Society, advocates embryo research but is not in favour of Fredrik Lanner’s work: “The production of genetically modified human embryos is extremely dangerous. It is the first step on the road to producing genetically modified human beings. These are permanent and probably irreversible changes, the consequences of which are immeasurable. If we produce genetically modified babies, we are likely to find ourselves in a world where babies will be perceived as biologically superior. There will also be a distinction between the genetically wealthy and the genetically deprived, which would be a social catastrophe”.
NPR, Rob Stein (22/09/2016)