After researchers at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou announced that they had successfully modified the DNA of human embryos, scientists from around the world called for an international ban on the procedure which could lead to the designing of babies with built-in genetic advantages.
The Telegraph is reporting that China has been ordered to “rein in” scientists who engineered embryos in order to modify the gene responsible for a fatal blood disorder known as thalassaemia.
The work, led by Junjiu Huang, was published in the journal Protein and Cell only after the prestigious Nature and Science journal refused to publish it on ethical grounds.
In the controversial research, Huang’s team used non-viable embryos obtained from fertility clinics on which they employed a gene editing technique which was originally developed by scientists at MIT. Thus far, it has only been used in adult cells and animal models, but never in human embryos.
Advocates say gene editing could eradicate devastating inherited diseases, but others say it crosses an ethical line by allowing children to be genetically engineered.
“This news emphasizes the need for an immediate global ban on the creation of GM designer babies,” said Human Genetics Alert Director, Dr David King to the Telegraph. “It is critical that we avoid a eugenic future in which the rich can buy themselves a baby with built-in genetic advantages.”
He added: “It is entirely unnecessary since there are already many ethical ways to avoid thalassaemia. This research is a classic example of scientific careerism – assuring one’s place in the history books even though the research is unnecessary and unethical.”
British scientists are calling for an end to all experimentation until an international consensus is reached about whether the technique is safe and ethical.
Prof Shirley Hodgson, Professor of Cancer Genetics, St George’s University of London, told the Telegraph: “I think that this is a significant departure from currently accepted research practice. Can we be certain that the embryos that the researchers were working on were indeed non-viable? Any proposal to do germline genetic manipulation should be very carefully considered by international regulatory bodies before it should be considered as a serious research prospect.”
George Daley, a stem-cell biologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston called the study “a landmark, as well as a cautionary tale.”
“Their study should be a stern warning to any practitioner who thinks the technology is ready for testing to eradicate disease genes,” he said.
Huang says he has abandoned the project, however at least four groups in China are known to be pursuing the genetic modification of human embryos.
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