‘Gene editing not ready to be used in pregnancy’
• Tool could help create treatments or cures for diseases such as sickle-cell anemia, HIV, cancer
• IVF revolution signals end of ‘test tube’ baby era by allowing fertilisation to occur inside woman’s body
A tool to edit human genes is ‘nowhere near ready’ to be used in pregnancy – but international experts argue they should be allowed to alter early embryos for research purposes.
Organizers of a global summit concluded that altering early embryos could be done as part of careful laboratory research.
However, scientists and society continue to grapple with ethical questions surrounding the technology – including the concept of ‘designer babies’.
“It would be irresponsible’ to edit human sperm, eggs or early embryos in a way that leads to pregnancy,” said the summit’s chair, Noble laureate David Baltimore of the California Institute of Technology.
Tools to edit genes inside living cells – including a cheap and easy-to-use one known as CRISPR/Cas9 – have the potential to transform biology.
By using them, scientists may be able to create treatments or cures for diseases, such as sickle-cell anemia, Human Immuno-deficiency Virus (HIV) and cancer.
However, the tools could also alter human heredity, thereby allowing for the creation of ‘designer babies’.
The concept of these babies raises ethical questions that triggered three days of debate by scientists, policymakers and ethicists from 20 countries.
These questions were raised with urgency after Chinese researchers made the first attempt to alter genes in human embryos, an experiment that showed scientists don’t know how to do that safely or effectively yet.
Organizers from the summit endorsed treatment-related gene research – but said lab research on so-called germline editing issues is ‘clearly needed and should proceed’ with appropriate oversight.
The panel offered what geneticist Eric Lander of the Broad Institute of Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT) and Harvard called ‘a framework for deciding if and when’ the reproductive use of gene editing ever moves forward.
The committee concluded: “As scientific knowledge advances and societal views evolve, the clinical use of germline editing should be revised on a regular basis.”
It also urged the sponsors of the summit – the scientific academies of the United States (US), Britain and China – to create an international forum to help ‘establish norms concerning acceptable uses of human germline editing’.
First-step testing of an initial gene therapy – using older tools – has already begun in people, according to a presentation at the summit.
Meanwhile, an In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF) breakthrough could signal the end of the ‘test tube baby’ by allowing fertilisation to occur inside a woman’s body for the first time.
The development, to be offered within weeks to British couples having trouble conceiving, means the crucial first stage of embryo development can take place in the natural surroundings of the womb rather than in the laboratory – just as in normal conception.
The cutting-edge process involves inserting a device smaller than a matchstick, containing a mixture of sperm and eggs, into the woman’s body.
It is removed after 24 hours to allow doctors to assess which of the resulting embryos are healthy enough to be implanted in the hope of achieving a successful pregnancy.
Leading fertility experts say it offers women an important psychological benefit as it gives them greater biological involvement in the creation of their children. Doctors believe it may also boost IVF success rates and the long-term health of the children.
The technique, which has been used successfully in some European clinics, was formally approved by the fertility regulator, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), in September.
During IVF, an egg is removed from the woman’s ovaries and fertilised with sperm in a laboratory. The fertilised embryo is then returned to the woman’s womb after six days to grow and develop.
IVF involves six main stages: first the menstrual cycle is suppressed with medication, then other drugs are used to encourage the ovaries to produce more eggs than usual. Ultrasound scans check the development of the eggs, and further medication is used to help them mature.
To ‘harvest’ the eggs, a needle is inserted into the ovaries, via the vagina. Traditionally, the eggs are then mixed with the sperm for a few days ‘in vitro’ – in a lab dish – to allow them to be fertilised before one or two are placed into the womb.
The new process involves mixing the sperm and eggs and placing them instead in the Anecova AneVivo device, which is about 1cm long and 1mm wide. This is inserted painlessly without an anaesthetic.
Couples return home from the clinic while fertilisation takes place.
One of the first patients to use the device in Europe, Leila Rampino, 39, said she had found it ‘frustrating’ to have to leave her embryos in the laboratory.
*Adapted from dailymail.co.uk