What’s the Story?
This week, NPR was the first to tell us all about Fredrik Lanner, a Swedish biologist at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm who is editing the genes of healthy human embryos. This is not the first or the last time we will hear about science experiments on human embryos, but this story really hit a nerve in the scientific community. Here’s what happened.
NPR reported that Dr. Lanner and his colleagues are editing the genes of embryos in order to discover why some embryos stop developing and others result in a healthy pregnancy. They are using a relatively new technology called CRISPR to change DNA within embryos. They are knocking out (making useless) genes that they think may be essential for embryonic development and observing the embryos for up to 14 days. He will not tell us which genes he is targeting yet but he hopes to find answers to questions regarding infertility and miscarriage, and develop genetic science in a way that can benefit the treatment of other genetic diseases.
That Sounds Wonderful So Why All the Hype?
The idea of genetically modifying anything, especially embryos, sends some people into a tail spin. In April 2015 NPR reported on a group of Chinese scientists, who used CRISPR to modify the HBB gene responsible for the blood disorder beta-thalassemia in an effort to treat disease on a genetic level. The process was not successful - it resulted in unintended mutations in the embryos’ DNA - and the efforts were suspended. The reports of these experiments lead to international demand for more oversight on genetic modification of embryos.
In December 2015, researchers held an international summit on genetic editing and decided that although there may be some legitimate uses for human embryo editing, there needs to be some limitations. They concluded that technology should not be used to change genes in embryos intended to result in pregnancy.
What is CRISPR?
CRISPR is the coolest thing since sliced bread - or the scariest newest development in genetic technology - depending on your perspective. CRISPR stands for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, and it was discovered by Jennifer Doudna and her team at the University of Berkeley in California. Dr. Doudna and her team found CRISPR while studying mechanisms by which bacteria fight viruses. Turns out bacteria have special enzymes that can cut open the DNA of an invading virus and make changes in the DNA at the site of the cut, which kills the virus. The team realized that they could modify these enzymes to recognize any DNA sequence, and voila! – CRISPR can be used to change any DNA sequence - not only viral, but human DNA.
Dr. Lanner says CRISPR is a ‘game changer.’ Scientists have been modifying DNA for years, but it is a timely and costly procedure. CRISPR is cheap and relatively easy and will allow the science of genetics to develop even faster.
Deep Breath. What About the Ethics?
The ethical arguments against and worries about using CRISPR for genetically altering human embryo DNA usually involve the following:
1. The technology is new and we do not know the long-term consequences
2. Changes within DNA alter germline genetics, meaning that we can alter something that can be passed on to future generations.
3. Changes in the DNA could be used to create designer babies.
Back in 2015, Dr. Doudna’s reacted to the Chinese experiments saying, "The technology is not ready for clinical application in the human germline. And that application of the technology needs to be on hold pending a broader societal discussion of the scientific and ethical issues surrounding such use."
Even people who support research on human embryos are worried about what Dr. Lanner is doing. According to NPR, Marcy Darnovsky, the head of the Center for Genetics & Society, a watchdog group based in California that supports human embryonic research, states:
"The production of genetically modified human embryos is actually quite dangerous. It's a step toward attempts to produce genetically modified human beings. This would be reason for grave concern."
Dr. Lanner reassured NPR that:
1. His experiments fall within the guidelines set by the December 2015 international summit, since he has no intention of attempting pregnancy with any of the tested embryos.
2. His intention is to help science learn more about embryonic development to help treat infertility, miscarriage, and genetic diseases.
3. All technology has good use and morally questionable uses, and we need laws to control it.
Genetic testing on human embryos is happening. Scientists in Britain plan to conduct similar research to Dr. Lanner’s in 2017. In the US, research on human embryos is not funded by the federal government, but it is legal as long as there is no attempt at pregnancy. Stay tuned, because according to Business Insider, the National Academies’ Gene Editing Committee expects to publish a report with specific recommendations on governance of gene editing research for the US government in early 2017.
Just a few weeks ago, I published a blog on genetics where I talked about some of the questions I get asked as a fertility specialist. Questions like, “When can I get a designer baby?” Whenever anyone asks me this question, I tell them that we cannot select embryos for hair color, eye color, intelligence, or athletic ability. I also tell them “We’re not in Gattaca yet.” Gattaca, in case you don’t know, is the 1997 feature film starring Ethan Hawke, Jude Law, and Uma Thurman, set in the future when people who can conceive naturally choose to conceive with IVF in order to genetically engineer their children for superior traits. It’s a highly entertaining movie, but as I tell my patients, it’s probably best to keep this idea fiction for as long as we can.
With the newest advances in genetic modification on embryos, this is an area of research and ethics to watch and stay informed about but Gattaca’s not coming anytime soon - and we are still not even close to designers babies.