A recent scientific study has successfully demonstrated the ability to alter defective DNA in human embryos, with the objective of removing genetic mutations. This breakthrough development presents the opportunity to facilitate new research into the prevention of many genetic disorders. Our Medical Director Professor Geeta Nargund says that this is a major advance in gene editing but there are many scientific, regulatory and ethical hurdles that will still need to be overcome.
Professor Nargund cautions that it is ‘very important to be aware that this development is still at an incredibly early experimental stage’ and that it will be a long time before this technology might have any relevance in real-life situations. Currently, it would be illegal to transfer embryos after gene editing and any change needs to be passed through Parliament and is regulated by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), with the many complex ethical considerations to be taken into account.
Professor Nargund, who appeared on Sky News discussing the topic on Thursday morning, explains that the use of such scientific technology in the future will be and should be ‘highly regulated’. She explains ‘we have to take into account both the short term and long term implications for the offspring and the society with the use of gene editing. It is also important that such treatments are affordable if and when they become available. Otherwise, they would be used only by a few and it does not fit in with the vision of promoting equality in heath care.
The gene-editing tool used in the US study to restructure and cut out inherited disease is the ‘Crispr-Cas9’.
The Crispr-Cas9 removes targeted elements of DNA from the cell and its natural repair systems then work to repair the damage.
An author of the US study believes that, under the regulation of the HFEA, Britain could be the country to pioneer bringing this treatment to patients.
Nargund is excited about this breakthrough and feels that this could be incredibly beneficial in the future if this advancement could prevent the inheritance of life threatening diseases. She supports its development only in highly regulated countries on a case-by-case basis and remains concerned about its controversial use in creating “designer babies” in unregulated countries.