Earlier this week scientists stunned us with the announcement they’d genetically altered the first human embryos in the U.S. using CRISPR technology — but don’t hold your breath if you think the ability to make designer babies is right around the corner.
Sure, we can do it, but most of the science world is against such a feat. Led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov of Oregon Health and Science University, the team that CRISPR’d the embryos only let them grow for a few days, with zero intention of letting them develop into a human baby.
That’s because allowing the practice on human beings is very controversial. Chinese scientists conducted a similar experiment on embryos in 2015, maddening the global scientific community and leading to an international moratorium on the use of CRISPR in human embryos.
Ignoring the moratorium, Chinese researchers proceeded to experiment twice more. However, results from those experiments have been murky at best, adding fuel to the argument this was not the way to go about using the technology on humans.
Top U.S. officials have also called CRISPR a threat to national safety, citing the ease of use and rapid rise of the technology that enables scientists to snip out any fragments of DNA they wish by programming an enzyme that acts as a sort of scissors.
The process can be used for something called germline editing, or permanently changing the genetic makeup of an individual and all that individual’s offspring for generations to come as they would no longer pass on the diseased gene.
Critics have warned CRISPR could be used to create designer babies. Picture some dystopian future where the rich can pay for all genetic flaws to be wiped out before the embryo is even implanted, leaving the poor at a permanent genetic disadvantage.
Many scientists consider germline editing to be unethical because you are deciding to permanently change not only one human’s genetic makeup, but the genetic makeup of those after them, without their permission.
But we are a long ways off from getting to GATTACA. For one, as mentioned above, the scientific community is wary of CRISPR’ing humans, especially in embryo. For another, even if we can demonstrate it’s okay for human use, it will likely be to cure and eradicate deadly diseases.
The technique would also require implantation and growing of the embryo beyond a few days. As far as we know, no scientist, Chinese or American, has done this.
One other consideration is who owns the patent on human CRISPR’ing. Right now, it’s The Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, but just this week Berkeley challenged a court ruling that came down in favor of the Broad, contesting the original patent filed by Berkeley was broad enough to cover all uses of the technology and that Broad should not have the right to a separately filed patent allowing human use of the technology.
Given all the legal and ethical hurdles, it’s clear we have quite a ways to go before anyone even thinks about making baby Einstein supermodels in the future.