Designer Babies vs Therapeutic Treatment

Greetings everybody, 

2016 is shaping up to be an interesting year so far for science! It is only January and already the controversial topic of genetically modifying human embryos has been catapulted into the spotlight. This long standing bioethical debate was triggered by Kathy Niakan’s application to carry out embryonic gene editing in the UK! It is now an all out war between scientists vs scientists.

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Firstly, why is genetic modification such a promising technological advancement for therapeutic treatment? Simply put, it would allow us to replace ‘damaged’ DNA that will likely cause some form of genetic disease with ‘undamaged’ DNA. 

Sounds good, so why is there a split amongst scientists? 
Ethics my dear, ethics. Those that are against this step forwards believe it would be crossing an ‘ethical line’ by carrying out modifications on germ line cells (reproductive cells, embryos), as the changes will be carried forward onto the next generation, without consent. Additionally, with great technology comes great responsibility, there are fears that germ line modification is the first inevitable step towards non therapeutic uses i.e. designer babies

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Ok, so you have been introduced to the debate now to introduce you to how this type of gene  modification actually works. I could go into the whole massive scientific procedure behind it, but I won’t. The things you need to know are in the diagram below. 

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Whilst germ line modification has remained hidden, somatic cell modification has been flourishing. Cells used in this technique would never lead to a baby therefore the ethics concerned are not so stressed. 
Outcomes from research on genetically modifying somatic cells are very promising! A study conducted in California used genetic editing technology to remove the gene holding the blueprint to make the receptor that HIV binds to from white blood cells. A functional cure for HIV/AIDS seems rather plausible with this technique, there infected patients are injured with modified white blood cells, and casting anti-retroviral drugs as redundant.

Compare this to the first published article using gene editing tools to modify non viable human embryos, the results are not so optimistic.
They started of by injecting 86 embryos with CRISPR/Cas9 
71 of these embryos survived
52 were genetically tested
Only 28 were successfully spliced
4 embryos contained the genetic material that was designed to repair the cuts in their DNA.

Not great success was reaped from this study and a key fear of such editing was confirmed during the course of their study. The researchers found a significant number of ‘off target mutations’, such unintentional mutations could have adverse effects for the baby. Some critics argue that there is no need for this advancement in genetic technology, current technologies allow us to genetically screen and select healthy embryos for IVF.

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Of 100 eggs only 13 will develop beyond the three month stage in IVF, the odds aren’t great. With each round of IVF costing around £5,000 a greater understanding of what goes wrong during development is much needed. Kathy Niakan believes that germ line modification unlock a deeper understanding of developmental biology as well as the underlying genetic factors that cause miscarriages. 


15 of 22 Western European countries have prohibited germ line modification claiming that this course of action is an ‘ethical breach’ that should never be crossed. The main issue is, if there are any detrimental effects of modifying a human embryo they may not be made apparent until the baby is born.

However! Lets look on what we have to gain from this unchartered venture. Near to complete eradication of devastating genetic diseases carried on for generations. Transformed germ germ lines carry the potential protection against, forms of cancer, diabetes and even age related problems. 

Yep! It is definitely a head scratcher in terms of bioethics but nonetheless, as scientists pioneering in this field their is an importance to educate the  young minds of future physicians. See you next Friday have an amazeballs weekend!!

Over and out

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