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Chinese scientists genetically modify human embryos

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Original article (open access):


  • They used CRISPR/Cas9 to edit the human β-globin protein gene, mutations in which are responsible for β-thalassaemia.

  • The embryos were obtained from fertility clinics and would not have survived the first few steps in development.

  • Efficiency of gene editing was very low with many off-target mutations; this raises serious issues with regards to clinical applicability of the Cas9 system at its current state.

  • "...critics of the paper have noted that the low efficiencies and high number of off-target mutations could be specific to the abnormal embryos used in the study."

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From the Nature article:

CRISPR/Cas9 applied to human pre-implantation embryos and as such the study is a landmark, as well as a cautionary tale," says George Daley, a stem-cell biologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts. "Their study should be a stern warning to any practitioner who thinks the technology is ready for testing to eradicate disease genes."

Some say that gene editing in embryos could have a bright future because it could eradicate devastating genetic diseases before a baby is born. Others say that such work crosses an ethical line: researchers warned in Nature in March that because the genetic changes to embryos, known as germline modification, are heritable, they could have an unpredictable effect on future generations. Researchers have also expressed concerns that any gene-editing research on human embryos could be a slippery slope towards unsafe or unethical uses of the technique.

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