A Chinese team has performed the first DNA editing exercise on a human embryo, the BBC reports.
The Sun Yat-sen University team corrected a single error in the three billion “letters” of our genetic code to cure beta-thalassemia. One of the researchers, Junjiu Huang, claims his team is the first to demonstrate the feasibility of curing genetic disease in human embryos by base editing.
The embryo will not be born. The embryos for these experiments were created by cloning patients with the blood disorder.
However, the pioneering procedure opens the way to editing inherited diseases.
There are two known teams that are working on human DNA editing, one Swedish at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and one Chinese.
That kind of research does aim to create genetically modified human beings, but it does seek to prevent disease. Norms for conducting and publishing human-embryo-editing work are highly sensitive.
There are three main fears.
The first is that experimentation with healthy human embryos, even if not intended for pregnancy, opens the door to “designer babies” for other teams. This would give new meaning to “class struggle.” Rich people could become biologically superior, dividing society between the genetic haves and have-nots.
The second is the introduction of “an error” in the gene pool, if a baby were to be born, creating a new hereditary disease.
A third objection is, of course, experimenting on embryos. Babies are not born as a result of the work of teams that go public with their work. But, there are legal regimes that consider embryos being humans with their own moral standing.