Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Ethics for an Edited Embryo

By Michael Cook

Editing of a gene in a human embryo may have ticked some regulatory boxes but this does not address some huge ethical issues.

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It will probably be described as one of the most important inventions of the 21st century. After just 4–5 years, CRISPR gene-editing technology is racing ahead, creating myriad opportunities for improving medical treatment.

Take the possibility of replacement organs. Since pigs are roughly the same size as humans, why not use their hearts or lungs? One very good reason not to is that pig DNA contains porcine endogenous retroviruses (PERV). But just a few weeks ago a team bred pigs whose PERVs have been removed. A pig-to-human organ transplant may only be 2 years away.

Great news.

Other uses of CRISPR are far more unsettling. In August, American and Korean scientists published in Nature the details of how they successfully edited a single gene in human embryos (http://tinyurl.com/y95z6uhq). A team led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov of Oregon Health and Science University used CRISPR to eliminate a gene, MYBPC3, linked to a heart disorder. All the embryos were destroyed before they were a few days old.

The highly-anticipated paper was technically strong, innovative and rigorous. For many biologists, the news was spine-tingling. There are about 10,000 harmful single-gene mutations that cause ailments ranging breast cancer to Tay-Sachs disease, a lethal disorder which is...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.