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Dawn of designer babies? Scientists use gene-editing to remove DNA for the first time

3 August 2017

Could editing out DNA that causes disease lead to selecting other desirable characteristics?

It is being reported today that scientists have, for the first time, successfully removed DNA that causes a heart condition from embryos.

The scientists, from Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, used gene-editing to cut out DNA from an embryo. The embryo then repaired itself, replacing the mutated material with healthy cells.

The new technique is being touted as a breakthrough which has "potential to revolutionise medicine and could lead to the eradication of inherited diseases such as cystic fibrosis and breast cancer." 

Embryo abuse

However, as SPUC's Education and Communications Director, bioethicist Dr Anthony McCarthy explains, the study involved the deliberate destruction of human embryos, and does not cure people suffering with inherited diseases.

Scroll down to hear Dr McCarthy discussing the story on Talk Radio!

"This technique does not treat any existing human being, but purposely creates new embryos using damaged sperm injected into the egg at the same time as the preemptive 'cure'," he says. "58 embryos were created by that technique alone, and some appeared to be healthy, though we will never know as they were not transferred to a woman's body. When the embryo experimenters had finished with the embryos, no embryo was permitted to survive. It is hard to think of a worse use of gene editing technology, which should be used instead to treat existing patients ethically, in a way that does not affect future generations or expose the patient to undue risk of harm."

The study claimed that the faulty gene, which causes hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, was successfully removed in 42 of the 58 embryos created with sperm carrying it. None of the embryos were allowed to develop past 5 days. 

Designer babies

There have also been warnings that the process could lead to the creation of "superior designer babies", with genes modified to improve physical appearance, strength or even intelligence. Embryos have been genetically edited before in China, in a series of small studies in 2015 which were met with widespread condemnation. It is currently illegal in the UK to use the technology on human embryos for anything other than research.


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