Scientific Progress in Genome Engineering Raises Ethical Concerns

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Scientific Progress in Genome Engineering Raises Ethical Concerns
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Scientific Progress in Genome Engineering Raises Ethical Concerns
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As genetic engineering progress grows at an exponential rate, so too does the difficulty of avoiding the topic. An ethical debate was sparked last year when scientists in China conducted a secret experiment to edit the genes of twins in an attempt to reduce their risk of HIV. What’s more, the process occurred prior to understanding future implications and while the twins were still in their embryonic stage.

Embryonic editing instills genetic permanence down to the reproductive level, meaning that future generations of the twins involved in the experiment will inherit the genome modification and it’s potential consequences. The lead scientist, Dr. He Jiankui, has since received heavy backlash for his efforts. However, in a world of rapid progress, it may come as no surprise that genome editing is ready to hit headlines again.

Earlier this year, Allergan and Editas Medicine announced a less controversial approach to genome editing. Unlike the Chinese experiment, this effort aims to help patients after they’re born. Participants in the study will range from adults to children as young as three years old.

Researches are hopeful their new developments will allow for the ability to eventually cure blindness. The post-embryonic experiment from Allergan and Editas Medicine aims to tackle Leber congenital amaurosis (LCA).

LCA, which causes blindness in roughly 3 out of every 100,000 newborns, is an inherited condition that prevents pupils from reacting normally to light. Often, the condition goes unnoticed as it lies dormant in the DNA of parents and is only activated upon reproduction with someone sharing the same gene.

The single treatment process will attempt to use the genome editing tool CRISPR to grant 18 individuals with sight by cutting out the defective gene and replacing it with a new one. They expect the DNA to then repair itself, as well as the photoreceptor cells, thus granting the patients with sight. A similar experiment is being attempted with sickle cell disease.

Should these studies result in success, they’re likely to open the floodgates for similar experiments in the future. On the other hand, ethical concerns have been expressed by many in the scientific community. Perhaps most troubling are fears over designer babies and attempts to resurrect extinct species. Such a reality led biochemist Jennifer A. Doudna to state that handling our newfound power “may be the biggest challenge we have ever faced.”

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