Fear and celebration at first ‘edited’ embryo

Signs of life: A very young human embryo, like the one that has been modified by scientists.

Chinese scientists have changed the genes of human embryos for the first time. Using the technique could lead to major advances in combating disease — but can it overcome ethical objections?

Scientists have been capable of editing the genetic makeup of an organism for decades. But one species has always remained untouched: human beings. Now, however, that barrier has been broken. A team at the University of Guangzhou in China have made small alterations to the DNA of embryos. Although the embryos used were non-viable — they would not have been able to live — the breakthrough could allow humans to change their offspring in ways which have so far been the sole preserve of nature.

The researchers, who were led by Jinjiu Huang, were able to modify a gene responsible for a potentially fatal blood disorder by injecting an enzyme and another molecule into very recently fertilised embryos. It opens the possibility that scientists could one day edit embryos used in IVF treatment before they are implanted; so one day we might modify people’s genes before their birth. This could in turn allow scientists to find ways of preventing genetic disorders which result from mutated DNA, such as cystic fibrosis, haemophilia and sickle cell anaemia.

The technique will not be widely available for a while, since only 28 of the 54 embryos which the scientists tested after the procedure had been successfully changed. But with similar work rumoured to be underway in countries such as the US, it seems likely to be just a matter of time before the human race makes further advances in its understanding of genetic science.

There will be risks — if a procedure goes slightly wrong, it could give babies new diseases or genetic weaknesses. But what is more worrying to many is the possibility that people could go beyond curing illnesses and use the technique to attempt to ‘improve’ the genetic features of human beings. This practice is known eugenics, and it has featured in many dark fantasies about a dystopian future, such as the classic novels Brave New World and Frankenstein.

Change your genes

Some are instinctively queasy at the prospect of altering human genes, and worry that humans are trying to take the prerogative of God. Who decides which genes are problematic or need changing? That has never been humans’ role before.

But some will support the research enthusiastically given the chance to curtail human suffering. Though there will be risks, we should not fear investing money, time and resources in a scientific process which could save, and improve the quality of, countless lives in years to come.

Others go further still. Why not use any means possible to improve ourselves? Making the human race stronger and more resilient would allow people to live longer, healthier, happier lives. That is surely the point of all medical research.

You Decide

  1. Should governments continue to fund medical research into modifying human genes?
  2. If you could alter your own genes or those of your children, would you do it? Should you be allowed to do so?

Activities

  1. Study the homepage of Jeans for Genes Day (link provided). In groups, prepare a presentation on the work that the event funds and what it helps to achieve.
  2. Read through the timeline of advances in genetic research (link provided). Pick the three you consider most important. Write a paragraph on each explaining why you chose them and a paragraph explaining why you didn’t choose any of the others.

Some People Say...

“Natural selection will someday be obsolete.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Were scientists expecting this?
They’ve been caught slightly by surprise, as the Chinese team have been very secretive, even when rumours of the research circulated. So it will take some time for them to work out what else needs to be done.
Who supports it, and who is opposed to it?
Families of those with genetic disorders will be particularly keen to see more investment in this, so that others don’t have to suffer what they have. But there will be groups with ethical objections, particularly religious groups, who often see experimenting on embryos as destroying life.
Is there any reason for people to be concerned?
It’s hard to say — some scientists are warning that research like this may already be underway for more radical purposes, but they don’t know what.

Word Watch

Gene
All living organisms have genes, passed on to them by their parent(s). which dictate who and what they are. Genes come together to form DNA. The gene was discovered by Gregor Mendel in 1865, but the significance of his work was unclear until 1909, when the gene was given its name.
IVF treatment
In vitro (literally ‘in glass’) fertilisation (IVF) is a process whereby a woman can become pregnant by implantation of an egg fertilised outside of her body e.g. in a test tube — hence the glass.
Eugenics
An attempt to use scientific methods to alter human beings’ genetic features. It has been used by some racist regimes to try to create races of people which they consider superior — the Nazis being the best-known example.
Brave New World
A novel by Aldous Huxley, published in 1932, in which natural human birth had been abandoned and all people were created for specific purposes. Huxley painted the world which resulted as largely devoid of meaning.
Frankenstein
A novel by Mary Shelley, published in 1818, in which the main character creates a living being who then turns against him.