genetic engineering

Two year old Layla was declared free of leukaemia last week. She was saved after researchers took ‘scissors’ to a donor’s immune cells, in June 2015 and added new genes that would help her fight the cancer that was seemingly unstoppable even in the face of maximum chemotherapy.

layla richards

Last  week scientists in the USA started  gene editing in sperm, eggs and embryos to prevent inherited disorders such as cystic fibrosis and Huntingdons.

Gene editing has become cheap and easy by CRISPR – an exciting  biological system for altering DNA. Prof Dupre of the Nuffield Council describes CRISPR as “satnav with scissors”, because it uses proteins to cut DNA at a precise, targeted location.Genome editing is the deliberate alteration of a selected DNA sequence in a living cell, A strand of DNA is cut at a specific point and then natural cellular repair mechanisms repair the broken strands.

There are 4,000 known inherited single gene conditions, such as cystic fibrosis. affecting about 1% of births worldwide. Genome editing leads to the possibility of such conditions being treated.In 2015 it was reported that a Chinese team of researchers had corrected disease-causing genetic mutations in non-viable embryos, so they were not allowed to develop. The UK’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) also granted a licence in February 2016 to allow genome editing of embryos in the UK.

There are obvious concerns, such as the potential risks of unintended consequences of changing DNA and the implications for future generations. There is the worry  of ‘designer babies’ where gene editing is used to produce attractive characteristics rather than treat serious conditions

The Nuffield Council said discussing ethical issues now would aid public understanding of the new technology. Scientists were taken aback by public opposition to GM foods and needed to take the public along with them this time.

There are a number of ethical issues but advances in genetics have created an unstoppable push to use such technologies in humans. Despite the UK parliament passing a law to allow manipulation of mitochondrial DNA to created 3 parent babies the US beat the UK and a baby boy containing genetic information from 3 parents was born last week.