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U.S Scientists Genetically Edit Human Embryos for the First Time

Using CRISPR, it is possible to correct the genes that cause inherited diseases before babies are born.

A team of researchers in Portland Oregon has created what is believed to be the first genetically modified human embryos in the U.S. using CRISPR, a game-changing gene-editing technique. Though the specific findings are still under wraps and pending publication, the results reportedly suggest that it is possible to correct the defective genes that cause inherited diseases before babies are born.

“So far as I know this will be the first study reported in the U.S.,” Jun Wu, a collaborator at the Salk Institute, in La Jolla, California, who played a role in the project, told MIT Technology Review.

The research, led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov of Oregon Health and Science University, involved altering the DNA of a large sample of one-cell embryos with CRISPR, MIT first reported. Mitalipov and his team created the embryos with sperm donated by men with a specific genetic mutation they planned to repair with CRISPR. Multiple CRISPR studies have been conducted in China, but showed that the technique produced multiple editing errors and that desired changes didn’t occur in all embryos—an effect called mosaicism.


A still from a video shows gene-editing chemicals being injected into a human egg at the moment of fertilization. Scientists used the technique to correct DNA errors present in the father’s sperm. (OSHU)

This time around, Mitalipov’s results claim to yield significantly less “off-target” effects, or editing errors, and avoided previous mosaicism. This is significant because, theoretically, those babies could pass down unknown genetic errors to their offspring, which could have unknown consequences to the gene pool—a controversial process known as germline editing. Such advances may quell this ethical concern.

Though the CRISPR technique was discovered five years ago, it was only earlier this year that the U.S. National Academy of Sciences permitted this, and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) approved the first trial just last year. So there’s likely a lot more information to be uncovered and considered, but it could give parents concerned about passing on serious genetic diseases another option one day.

“This is the kind of research that is essential if we are to know if it’s possible to safely and precisely make corrections,” legal scholar and bioethicist R. Alta Charo of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who was not involved in the study, told STAT. “While there will be time for the public to decide if they want to get rid of regulatory obstacles to these studies, I do not find them inherently unethical.”