The idea of targeting disease and disorders before the baby has been completely formed during pregnancy has been around for years. The practical science, as well as the moral implications that emerge from it, have been debated and tested numerous times, with no clear end in sight. At least, that’s what we thought.
One research team, a collaboration between American and South Korean institutions, have managed to edit embryos to remove faulty DNA. They have managed to remove gene malfunction that causes a deadly heart disease that is passed down through families. With this technology, they can reportedly stop diseases like this from being transferred to the children of the afflicted.
The team focused on hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a common heart disorder. The disorder affects one in 500 people and can suddenly stop the heart from beating. It all comes down to an error in a single gene, which has a 50/50 chance of being passed on through the family. When this process is successful, it can prevent the disease from ever occurring.
The experiment was carried out by Oregon Health and Science University and the Salk Institute, along with the Institute for Basic Science in South Korea. The research team allowed the embryos to develop for 5 days before stopping the experiment.
The test involved the sperm of a man with hyperthrophic cardiomyopathy being injected into healthy donated eggs, while the recently developed Crispr technology was used to correct it during development. It didn’t work in every case, and the safety of the procedure still needs to be verified, but after their work a stunning 72% of embryos were free from mutations.
Speaking to the BBC, Dr. Shoukhrat Mitalipov said:
“Every generation on would carry this repair because we’ve removed the disease-causing gene variant from that family’s lineage. By using this technique, it’s possible to reduce the burden of this heritable disease on the family and eventually the human population.”
There have been multiple attempts across the world, but this is the first successful one without side-effects. Apparently there are about 10,000 genetic disorders that are caused by a single mutation and could theoretically be repaired with the same technology.
“A method of being able to avoid having affected children passing on the affected gene could be really very important for those families”, Professor Robin Lovell-Badge from the Francis Crick Institute, explained, “In terms of when, definitely not yet. It’s going to be quite a while before we know that it’s going to be safe.”
The questions that arise from this are not just scientific. As Darren Griffin, a professor of genetics, said: “Perhaps the biggest question, and probably the one that will be debated the most, is whether we should be physically altering the genes of an IVF embryo at all. This is not a straightforward question … equally, the debate on how morally acceptable it is not to act when we have the technology to prevent these life-threatening diseases must also come into play.”
The moral implications, as well as the fine-tuning of the procedure, are still up in the air, but it seems as if this breakthrough can potentially lead to all sorts of genetic disorders being prevented before it has the chance to infringe upon the afflicted person’s life.