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Editing ourselves: On genes and ethics

Scientists have for the first time managed to edit genes in a human embryo to repair a genetic mutation, this fueled hopes that such procedures may be available outside laboratory conditions.

The technique has the potential to prevent several diseases including certain type of cancers.

Specifics of this case:

  • Scientists fixed the mutation that thickens the heart muscle, a condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.
  • The cardiac disease is the cause of sudden death in otherwise healthy young athletes and affects about one in 500 people overall
  • It is caused by a mutation in a particular gene and a child is bound to suffer from the condition even if it inherits only one copy of the mutated gene
  • Correcting the mutation in the gene would not only ensure that the child is healthy but it would also prevent the mutation from being passed on to future generations

How did the scientist repair a genetic mutation:

  • The researchers injected sperm of a man affected by hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and the gene-editing tool called CRISPR-Cas9. The gene editing tool cuts the DNA near the position of the mutation, into the egg at the same time
  • The gene-editing tool cut the DNA at the correct position in all embryos and majority of the embryos did not carry the mutation

Why is this research mired in controversy:

  • The announcement has also revived fears about designer babies being within the realm of possibility
  • Every advancement in reproductive health, starting from in vitro fertilization to the recent birth of a baby through the “three parents” technique for mitochondria-related disease, has initially been mired in controversy but has ultimately come to stay

Way forward:

  • The use of CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technology when proven safe for preventing certain hereditary disease-causing mutations from being passed on to the child should be allowed, especially when no other treatment is available
  • The National Academies of Sciences and Medicine in US allowed scientists to use the tool for research and said the technique to edit embryos will become acceptable for clinical use.
  • But rigorous research involving multiple locations should be carried out to address all safety concerns and ethical issues
  • Though the philosophical and ethical debates are here to stay
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