Scientists are making advances in gene editing, as a new experiment proves. But some of the reporting has been dire—let’s all calm downby Philip Ball / August 4, 2017 / Leave a comment
How to strike the right balance in talking about the latest experiment in which a gene in a human embryo was edited? Should it be considered the first step on the road to tailored personal genomes, or a useful advance in what might one day be a valuable medical technique? Or just an incremental step in basic science?
This sort of editing of a genome would have been impossible before the advent in 2012-13 of the CRISPR-Cas9 technique, which uses a set of molecular machinery—basically a bacterial DNA-cleaving enzyme—to modify genes on DNA in a precisely targeted manner. So the result is certainly exciting. And because gene editing in human embryos has profound ethical as well as medical implications, it is controversial. Yet at the same time, the potential of doing such work was already apparent from previous experience with CRISPR, and we know very little at this stage about the implications of such a genetic change for the further development of the embryo. No one is talking yet about doing this in clinical medicine or human reproduction. So the furore over “designer babies,” while predictable, is out of proportion to what has been scientifically achieved here.