Two separate teams, one Swedish and one Chinese, are working on editing human DNA.
The teams are experimenting on human embryos developed through in vitro fertilization.
Editing comprises of zeroing in on individual human genes, affecting very precise change to the DNA. A gene-editing tool that has recently been developed is described as a “game-changer,” allowing this process to become quicker, cheaper, and more accurate.
By modifying and observing, scientists try to determine gene function.
Types of experimentation
The first team to go public with this work was Chinese, on April 6 2016. The team is led by Yong Fan at Guangzhou Medical University. According to Nature magazine, they are trying to introduce a human mutation that makes people resistant to HIV.
The project started in 2014 and the publication of ongoing work has undergone intense bioethical peer review, as well as scientific.
The second team is Swedish, led by Fredrik Lanner at Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. This is research that edits the DNA of healthy human embryos up to their 14th day of their development, according to NPR. Embryos are developed through in vitro fertilization.
The aim of the team is to address issues such as infertility. But, they also hope they will gain insight on other conditions such as diabetes, Parkinson, and even blindness.
A British team is said to be planning its own project.
Ethical and legal issues
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.
In the US, for example, teams could only have access to non-human primate embryos. In the U.K, experimentation can take place on human embryos not intended for pregnancy since February 2016. This is similar to the Swedish and Chinese approach.
There have been calls for a moratorium on similar research and the ethical debate remains fierce. In 2015, an international summit in Washington, D.C., determined it was too early to fear “designer babies,” but there was by no means consensus on the matter.