‘It’s most ... most likely use, is the technology of human enhancement’: Chinese scientists alter genes in human embryos in controversial study

But researchers say technology should not be applied until ‘thorough evaluation and discussion’ by global research and ethics community

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 April, 2016, 6:22pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 April, 2016, 3:09pm

A Chinese medical team’s attempt to genetically alter human embryos to make them resistant to HIV has raised questions in the medical community over the ethics of the experiment.

In only the second paper ever published on genetic editing in human embryos, a team from Guangzhou Medical University described their attempt to mutate a gene found to hinder the spread of HIV in humans.

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The Guangzhou Medical University’s paper, published in the Journal of Assisted Reproduction and Genetics on April 6, described how scientists used the genetic-editing CRISPR-Cas technology to experiment on 213 embryos. These fertilised eggs, donated after being found out unsuitable for implantation as part of in-vitro fertility therapy for containing an extra set of chromosomes, were destroyed three days later.

Only four embryos were successfully modified, with the rest still containing the original genes or unexpected mutations.

It comes almost a year after another Chinese medical team published the first paper on editing in genes linked with a potentially fatal blood disorder in a human embryo, igniting a fierce debate among scientists.

Chinese scientists genetically modify human embryos for the first time

One of the researchers, Fan Yong, said through a statement from his university that his research was approved by an ethics committee and that all the donors consented. The research was only to test the feasibility and laying rules for sequencing the genomes of early state human embryos for future treatment of genetic diseases.

“We advocate preventing any application of genome editing on the human germline until after a rigorous and thorough evaluation and discussion are undertaken by the global research and ethics communities,” Fan said in the published paper.

The scientific community has long been divided over the subject of genetic modification of human embryos. One objection is the possibility of unintended consequences occurring in future generations, and another is that the technology could lead to the creation of “designer” babies created for the wealthy.

In February, however, researchers at the Francis Crick Institute in London were given approval to use the genome-editing technique CRISPR/Cas9 in healthy human embryos to develop treatments for infertility.

Associate Professor Robert Sparrow of the Monash University Centre for Human Bioethics in Melbourne, said the experiment could help to refine the gene-editing process in humans, but may not lead to a long-term solution to HIV.

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“They’ve used something where you can think of it as a therapeutic project to test the technology, which could then be used to put any genes into human embryos,” he said.

“It’s most plausible use, and most likely use, is the technology of human enhancement.”

Sparrow said as the technique wasmore likely to be an early test for future genetic enhancement in humans.

If you were serious about not wanting to go down this path ... then the time to try and stop it is now
Professor Robert Sparrow, Monash University

“If you were serious about not wanting to go down this path where wealthy people are having children who have been genetically modified to have capacities that aren’t available to the children of poor parents, then the time to try and stop it is now,” Sparrow said.

“Once someone shows they can do it safely and effectively and then we try to say ‘no, we shouldn’t do it’, that strikes me as too late.”

An expert in molecular embryonic development at the Chinese Academy of Sciences said the novelty of the paper, published in an obscure journal, was that it tested the theory and technology on human embryos, but neither the theory nor the technology were groundbreaking.

He said there was a long, long way to go before it could make a concrete contribution to medical development.