In World First, Scientists Genetically Modify Human Embryos

By Carl Engelking | April 22, 2015 3:59 pm


Chinese researchers have officially taken science into some uncomfortable territory.

Researchers at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou have edited the genomes of human embryos, Nature reported in an exclusive Wednesday. The study, which was published in the journal Protein & Cell, confirms rumors that some scientists were conducting these ethically dubious experiments. The report has scientists sounding a warning call, as reported in Nature:

“I believe this is the first report of CRISPR/Cas9 applied to human pre-implantation embryos and as such the study is a landmark, as well as a cautionary tale,” says George Daley, a stem-cell biologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston.

“Their study should be a stern warning to any practitioner who thinks the technology is ready for testing to eradicate disease gene.”

Mixed Results

In the study in question, researchers attempted to replace the gene responsible for a potentially fatal blood disorder called β-thalassaemia. They used a gene editing technique called CRISPR/Cas9 on non-viable single-cell human embryos. This technique allows researchers to snip and splice DNA at desired locations.

The experiment wasn’t very successful. Nature reports that of the 86 embryos researchers started with, only a fraction successfully had the problematic gene replaced with a normal copy. And the CRISPR/Cas9 approach also introduced new mutations into other, unintended places in the genome.

Troubling Precedents

The precedent the experiment sets, however, is what’s causing the buzz. One of the biggest concerns about editing the human embryo is that any changes made are heritable. In other words, they can be passed on to future generations in ways scientists cannot, currently, predict.

For this reason, an alliance of 170 research firms, institutes and patient groups recently called for a moratorium on genome editing in human embryos, writing:

Many oppose germline modification on the grounds that permitting even unambiguously therapeutic interventions could start us down a path towards non-therapeutic genetic enhancement. We share these concerns.

In March, New Scientist called editing human embryos “genetics’ new battleground.” And, Nature News points out, both Nature and Science rejected the researchers’ paper on ethical grounds.

But unfortunately, it seems, the dialogue researchers were calling for has been superseded by the experiments themselves forcing complicated ethical questions to the fore while data, and debate, are still lacking.


Photo credit: Deva Studio/Shutterstock

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, top posts
  • Uncle Al

    Bravissimo, China! “Members of the Party wear grey. They work much harder than we do, because they’re so frightfully clever. I’m really awfully glad I’m Sino-haute bourgeois, because I don’t work so hard. And then we are much better than the Americans and Canadians.

    Americans are stupid. They all wear green, and Canadians wear khaki. Oh no, I don’t want to play with Canadians. And Africans are still worse. They’re too stupid to be able to read or write…. (re Brave New World, 1932, Aldous Huxley’ Chapter 2)

  • Marshalldoc

    What he said…

  • Artur Sixto

    It was obvious from the headline it had to be a Chinese group. No other country in the world having the potential to take this step would have allowed it. It is a disgrace. It is wrong and disturbing, and one more reason for pessimism at a time when humankind faces already ominous situations having to do with technology.

    We have been uncapable so far to put limits on our exploitation of natural ressources and to curb our impact on the environment. We have set in motion a climate shift, the acidification and rising of the oceans, and a mass extinction. We are running out of fossil fuels and uranium without taking significant adaptive measures. We have not solved our huge problem of safe radioactive waste disposal. We have not even been capable of tackling the mad, global increase of inequity. We have not been able either, to improve on our democratic systems in the minority of world democracies, nor to advance it much elsewhere. The UN is locked into its 1940’s design, uncapable to act effectively upon country agressions, crimes against humanity or genocides, and humanitarian crises.

    We are failing dramatically in all major humankind issues and China, on her own, has decided it should open the door to yet another path to disaster. In fact, starting these ecperiments

    • moonwatcher2001

      It is easy to throw ethics out the window if you live in a society where human life is not protected or even liked. China has such an overpopulation problem that the deaths of thousands doesn’t begin to weigh on their leaders. Similar to India. I remember one soccer match in India where bleachers fell and several tens of people were killed. Did they stop the match? No. They merely laid out the bodies and covered them with a sheet and the soccer match proceeded. Ethics only matter to those who feel ethical.

      • birder69

        The United States has the real overpopulation problem (and I am not talking about the poor of the world that still believe what it says on the Statue of Liberty), I am talking about the typical American pig with his/her overindulgencies that are orders of magnitude more excessive on a per-capita basis and which consume a vast proportion of the planet’s resources. Just one example: who needs these immense “luxury” pickup trucks that can hardly get down many streets? Thousands of times more American stand in line to get the latest stupidity from iPhone, Apple, or Microsoft than have ever given a dime to help the folks in Kiribati or Nepal.

      • Artur Sixto

        In general, the bigger the country, the weaker the bond between fellowcountrypeople, I guess. Size is a problem in social and democratic terms. Distance from political leaders becomes absurd. When the country is not a democracy, things get a lot worse. Add a culture where leaders, elders, and the community as a whole matter so much that able, individual persons, regard themselves as dispensable and therefore regard others as ants… The three things put together amount to a planetary threat.

    • eirikr1

      I doubt it.
      In a world where there are a collection of several sovereign states, each of which could violate the “implied ban”, anytime and for any reason it pleases without consequence, it is inevitable that one of them will do so.
      Not that I support surrendering sovereignty to an immoral and irrelevant UN, but that is the system we have, and that is the result we will have.

      • Artur Sixto

        I am not catching what is it that you doubt.

        In a civilized world no country would take ethically dubious decisions, no matter what others did, even less so when an implied ban applies everywhere else.

        We live not in a civilized world and therefore, non inevitable things become opportunities.

        This is not one of the major issues we face. At least we can feel comforted that, either we overcome our major problems, in which case we should be confident to redress this latest thing, or we fail to overcome them, and then the human genetics issue doesn’t matter that much anymore.

        • eirikr1

          I doubted it has anything to do with China being less ethical, and I further doubt that a “civilized world” would be impervious to a single country, somewhere, breaking the ban.

          Way too many countries, each one of them sovereign and self interested, for such a thing to work.

          Did you see the cartoon of all the countries at the door of the disarmament office? We all want peace, but when we meet at the disarmament office, we all want to go “after you, first…”

  • fluffylucy

    I think the experiment was inevitable, even if it’s timing wasn’t. Sooner or later, we will be modifying human genes for the perceived advantages to be gained. This particular experiment failed to produce the desired results but work will continue until they are achieved.

    The question of whether we should be toying with nature, given our dismal record, is now mute.

    • Silk VanLeer


      • Anthony


    • solomonroskin

      What do you think humans have been doing this whole time up until now? And what, the computer that you are now using to post on an internet news post is “natural”? Your cellphone? Your car? Any other piece of technology?

      • fluffylucy

        Ive never suggested that computers were natural, but they don’t change natural entities in the same way that genetic engineering does. Whats more, if we stop making them and cell phones and cars, they will disappear. Changes to our genome or that of other living organisms could well be perpetuated beyond our design.

        Anyway, I wasn’t even arguing against genetic engineering. I actually think there is a lot of promise in it but I think its naive to expect people not to try stuff.

        • solomonroskin

          I understand and agree with that the affects would be long lasting. It all comes down to whaf fhe purpose is. If this will help cure people of ailments and even save lives then great. Besides that, precautions always have to be taken beforehand

          • fluffylucy

            Whatever our purpose, we will proceed with the same degree of caution we have shown in the past, which is usually not enough. After all, there could be money involved.

        • Alan Ward

          Everything is natural. Anything made by man is natural because the source is natural. Cellphones are the result of natural processes and are as natural as a leaf or an ant. Any results of genetic engineering will be entirely natural. Separating man and what he does from the rest of the natural world is an illusion. Like a beaver building a dam only our intelligence allows more complex results.

      • Anthony

        Humans have not knowingly been splicing genes from other species into the human genome.
        If you’re talking about agriculture, humans have been selecting for traits, and performing in-species crossing, not placing E-coli dna into corn.

    • ericlipps

      Don’t look at it as “toying with nature.” I’m sure the scientists involved sincerely want to help people, not just mess around with the genome for the fun of it.

      That said, this sort of thing has to be approached very carefully. If children are born as a result of such interventions and turn out to have unanticipated defects, they can’t just be disposed of. Even aborting them before birth, if the defects show up in the womb, will be wrenching, given that the fetuses’ flaws would be mistakes of man rather than of nature.

      And I think you mean the question is “moot”–but it isn’t, for society will decide whether this work ever makes it out of the laboratory.

    • jchunick

      moot… but it still doesn’t mean what you think it means.

  • Dan Poisson

    What’s the problem ? It’s science folks. It’s how people learn and medical science advances . Specifically what is unethical about it?

    • birder69

      Exactly, Dan. It’s a lot more ethical to work on our own sorry species than to muck about with some poor other animal writhing in pain.

  • AiyaOba

    Great News!
    It’s dawn of humanity’s exploration of absolute (unity frontiers) state of matter and energy, beyond it’s traditional ordinary relative states, for the betterment of all.-Aiya-Oba (Philosopher and discoverer of Nature’s absolute logic, equator of self-contradiction eternal oneness of pairness).

    • birder69

      Did you forget to take your tablets again?

  • solomonroskin

    This irrational fear is the sort of thing that hold humanity back from reaching it’s full potential. We have the technology to improve the lives of all the humans who inhibit earth. This is a new technique and it should have had been expected that mistakes would be made. This is why it’s called an experiment. After some time there would be enough data to improve on the technique and make less mistakes and maybe with the help ofthis technology we will save a few hundreds if not thousands of people from if not at least cure a few ailments.
    What’s irratating is how strongly pessimisticly any progress is viewed. Of course there are going to be bumps along the road! Of course we have to be cautious!! No body said other wise!!!

    • eirikr1

      And do we really have the choice, anyway?
      I remember when it was predicted that the population rate would eventually exceed the harvesting rate; the result would be a cap on the total world population number that could be fed and live. Advances in agriculture technology made the “prediction” moot. Evils, mistakes and consequences come from technology – no doubt. But we have reached a point of reliance on technology and a reliance on furthering it. We now live in a post-natural world, true, and there is no going back.

  • El Cid

    Science and research is inexorable. It is in the genes. Will always be there, else we would not be here, till they take it out.

  • moonwatcher2001

    Genetic engineering on human embryos to alleviate hereditary diseases will eventually be commonplace, that is assured. But doing it too early before techniques are truly ready is simply wrong. The negative results of these experiments as described above show they are not ready.

    And then, once you allow it to be used to eliminate disease, how to you put the genie (pun intended) back in the bottle as far as using it to artificially select other traits? Will the push to “enhance” humans, similar to the old NAZI eugenics program be stoppable, no matter how ethically conflicting it will be?

    • bwana

      “Will the push to “enhance” humans, similar to the old NAZI eugenics program be stoppable, no matter how ethically conflicting it will be?”

      And answer is… a resounding NO!! If we don’t do it, someone else will.

  • Albert Newton

    reminds me of the movie Gatthaca ..

  • Harry

    Yep! Adolf Hitler would have loved to have this techknowlogy! Master race beware!

  • dougsa

    I’m not sure the ethics of this are so cut and dried. I can completely understand fixing the gene for Cystic Fibrosis in an embryo. So the question is, do we ban a whole a technology outright just because it could be used for less ethical purposes? I’m not sure that right, or even possible. Especially since the technology will be developed for animals anyway.

  • Anthony

    New law; You want to experiment on human genes, you get a one-way ticket to Mars where it is made legal.
    Come to Mars, the Libertarian planet!

  • Huh?!?

    ZOMG GMOs!!!! 😛

  • Guest

    ㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋ ☛


  • Ken Jones

    “Soon it will be a sin for parents to have a child that carries the heavy burden of genetic disease.” -Bob Edwards.

  • Scottyone77

    As it was in the “Days of Noah” welcome the to the End Times

  • William Conner

    Dr. Frankenstein, China dose not have to fool with reanimating the dead to make their monsters. Is this what seems to be the danger? So many things that we buy in our department stores seem to come from China. Just check out. Imagine that. Dr. Frankincense’s monster with a “made in China” tag like stuff we buy in Walmart?

  • Armando Lopez

    It is inevitable that technological advancement will lead us down this path. It is in our nature to experiment, attempt to fix, attempt to enhance , etc, etc. Meddling with a defective human genome is no exception. If it were your own embryonic offspring carrying a defective gene, wouldn’t you try to fix it and be able to preserve it?

  • bwana

    This is but a small step in re-engineering the human genome for other environments, other atmospheres, other uses, resistance to infection, etc… Think engineering a “human” to better exist on Mars. Think engineering a “human” to have better resistance to the radiation hazards of space travel. Think engineering a “human” to be more efficient in food consumption. Think …

    Regardless of what the collective “we” may think, it is going to happen. Get used to the idea!

  • biju

    It is too dangerous. Knowing human nature, this could be used and abused to take advantage over others.

    • eirikr1

      Such as the eugenics wars predicted in the original star trek?

  • darryl

    Maybe I’m just cynical, but I kind of assumed this sort of work has already been done on the down low. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out human clones (non twins LOL) are out roaming around either.


  • Petr

    This step was inevitable.The problem behind it is not just ethical.The problem is, we are even more than so far with medicine working against evolution.Human kind in that way is getting more vulnerable and less capable of surviving.

  • Randy Shelly

    Perfecting the methodology to edit genes is good, since it could prove to be something we may need at some point in the future. Implementing it on a potential human is a big step, and that is where the debate is needed,

  • birder69

    Who sees this as a problem in ethics?

    The same sanctimonious protein sacks that operate without anesthetics on helpless animals of other species in the name of experimentation and science; or indulge in the torture of bulls, dogs, and horses for entertainment; or hunt elephants and tigers to extinction for trinkets and medical stupidities; or butcher thousands of sentient creatures at festivals to celebrate any of the perverted forms of superstition that are called “religions”?

    And there are those of that same out-of-control species who still worry about ethics when it comes to poking around the cells of the most troublesome organism of all time? Duhh…..

  • Charles Freeman

    The idea isn’t new, but let’s build an elite military force. Let’s create intellects that are far, far superior to what we have today. Do we know where it leads? Not really. But we do have to become more competent in order to survive. We can’t depend on cave era rules for life any more.

  • Herne Webber

    What is all of the anti-science handwringing for? This is not a slam, but I just would like to know, is it all coming from people who do not watch or read a lot of sci-fi, and/or who have a limited higher education in sciences?

    Because once the kinks get worked out (i.e., we do not want random insertions within functional genes!), then not only the therapeutic uses, but yes, even the “non-therapeutic genetic enhancements” will be astounding, amazing, cool, and, oh yeah, “just fine.” At first, only a handful of people out of billions will be willing and (financially) able to enhance their kids. Enhancements can be anything from something physical, like a better coordination gene (or the creation of new eye color variations); or mental/psychological, such as intelligence boosts (or increased ‘cunning’); or even sensory. If an added trait was positively selected for, such as being able to see better at night, or was even somehow wildly cool, like mental telepathy, how long would it take any such ‘artificial’ enhancement to become a part of a “meaningful” number of people? How large of a number is meaningful enough to be frightening? My point is, it is not as if genetically enhanced people will be, or will ever become, a meaningful part of our species based on numbers, regardless of how great their enhancements. Unless a group took off to be a founding population, like Khan’s folks in the Star Trek movies, the enhanced would just blend on into the rest of us mortals. Worst-case scenario, if someone literally created a new species, unable to breed with ordinary humans, they themselves would have to breed perpetually to even compete with us, let alone surpass us.

    So my only ‘fear’ would be testing this out, as was almost done in China (given they used an ‘nonviable’ embryo), before it’s ready. See, *all* of the kinks have to be worked out, because this isn’t knitting a sweater, it’s making a person who will have to live (if lucky) with whatever s/he gets. If my Ancestors had been able to delete my CF gene, or had given me the ability to see infra-red light, I would be fine with that. I have trouble imagining what sort of gift I would wish I could return, since I can’t imagining saying, “yeah, I wish I could have stayed a CF carrier.”

  • El Cid

    “Chinese researchers have officially taken science into some uncomfortable territory.”

    This is nothing new. Science has always been in uncomfortable territory. Uncomfortable for one or the other. That is a defining characteristic and nature of science. Science has no option but to chart uncomfortable territory.


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