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CRISPR: Still too early to try change human embryo DNA, experts say

By Ishika Sahni

It’s still too early to try to form genetically edited babies because science isn’t advanced enough to assure safety, states an international panel of experts who also charted a pathway for any countries that want to consider it.

Thursday’s report comes approximately two years after a Chinese scientist startled the world by disclosing he’d helped form the first gene-edited babies using a tool called CRISPR, which allows DNA changes or “edits” that can move to future generations. He Jianqui did this to three babies when they were embryos to try to make them resilient to infection with the AIDS virus and depicted it in exclusive interviews with The Associated Press.

Established scientists convicted his experiment as unethical, and he was sentenced to three years in prison for violating Chinese laws. The expert’s commission was created in the follow-up by the U.S. National Academy of Medicine, the United Kingdom’s Royal Society, and U.S. National Academy of Sciences. The group doesn’t take a viewpoint on whether editing embryos is ethical, just in case it’s ready scientifically and estimates that it’s not. A separate panel created by the World Health Organization is to report on ethics issues later this year.

The commission does say that in case a country permits this, it must be limited to cases where people have no or very poor options for having a child without the disease. Early attempts must be for serious diseases led by a single gene, such as cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, Tay-Sachs and the blood disorder beta-thalassemia, a neurological disease, says the report. It presents much-improved clarity about what it would take to go ahead and that now is not the time, says Jeffrey Kahn, a member of the panel and bioethics chief at Johns Hopkins University.

The Panel recommends that the,

  1. Pregnancy with edited embryos must not be performed unless it’s certainly possible to make only the engaged gene changes and not any unintentional ones, which can’t be done now.

  2. Extensive public discussions must be held before any country determines to permit editing embryos, sperm or eggs. A supervisory system requires being in place to assure oversight and publication of results, and to avoid bias or discrimination.

  3. Edited embryos must be studied in the lab to assure they’re evolving normally, and tests must be done to verify that all cells were modified as expected before they’re used to try pregnancy.

Few scientists not related with the work stated surprise at the panel’s involvement of diseases such as cystic fibrosis and sickle cell, which have a broad range of severity and existing treatments.

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