Scientists Edited Genes of Unborn Babies. When the Experiment Failed, They Killed the Babies

Bioethics   |   Micaiah Bilger   |   Jun 18, 2020   |   11:42AM   |   Washington, DC

An experiment that involved editing the DNA of unborn babies at their earliest stage of life and then destroying them ended in disaster, scientists in London reported this month.

Medium reports the research by biologist Kathy Niakan and her team at the Francis Crick Institute is being widely regarded as a warning sign about the dangers of trying to create a genetically modified human being.

Niakan used the CRISPR gene-editing technology to experiment on 25 human embryos, all less than 14 days old, according to the report. Although the embryos were in their earliest stage of life, they already were individual human beings with their own unique DNA.

According to the report, the London scientists used CRISPR to remove a gene known as POU5F1 in 18 of the embryos. Afterward, when they examined the 18 embryos and compared them to the seven that had not had their DNA edited, the scientists said about half had major DNA abnormalities that they did not intend.

Though the full impact of DNA editing is unknown, the scientists predicted that the abnormalities could cause birth defects, cancer and other problems, the report states. It also is unknown how DNA edits could affect any future children of those children.

Here’s more from the report:

The researchers then used sophisticated computational methods to analyze all of the embryos. What they found was that of the edited embryos, 10 looked normal but eight had abnormalities across a particular chromosome. Of those, four contained inadvertent deletions or additions of DNA directly adjacent to the edited gene.

A major safety concern with using CRISPR to fix faulty DNA in people has been the possibility for “off-target” effects, which can happen if the CRISPR machinery doesn’t edit the intended gene and mistakenly edits someplace else in the genome. But Niakan’s paper sounds the alarm for so-called “on-target” edits, which result from edits to the right place in the genome but have unintended consequences.

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After the experiment, the scientists said they destroyed all the embryos.

Genetic experts at the University of California Berkeley and the University of Pennsylvania reacted strongly to the research and warned other scientists about moving forward with similar experiments.

Professor Fyodor Urnov at UC Berkeley said the disastrous results should be regarded as a “restraining order for all genome editors to stay the living daylights away from embryo editing.”

Kiran Musunuru, a cardiologist at the University of Pennsylvania, said the experiment suggests DNA editing is much more complicated and dangerous than initially thought.

“What that means is that you’re not just changing the gene you want to change, but you’re affecting so much of the DNA around the gene you’re trying to edit that you could be inadvertently affecting other genes and causing problems,” Musunuru said.

For pro-life advocates, the experiment is troubling on multiple levels. The destruction of human life, no matter how early, is always wrong. From the moment of conception, unborn babies are unique, living human beings. Yet, their bodies are destroyed and used for experiments in laboratories across the world.

Genetic editing also has many concerned about the possibility of “designer babies,” or children whose genes have been edited to produce desired traits, such as height, hair color and sex.

In late 2018, a Chinese scientist caused international outrage after he announced that he had successfully changed the DNA of twin girls Lulu and Nana when they were embryos. The experiment involved editing a gene associated with HIV infections to make the twins resistant. One of the problems with the experiment, however, is that no one knows the effects of genetically altered DNA on human beings or their offspring.

In December, the Chinese news agency Xinhua reported the scientist, He Jiankui, was sentenced to three years in prison for illegally practicing medicine and fined 3 million yuan (about $430,000).

Meanwhile, international health agencies are considering international guidelines for genetic editing.