Yes, we're living in a sci-fi movie — and it just got sci-fi-ier. In a potentially game-changing experiment, scientists were able to successfully "edit" the DNA of human embryos to "correct" a congenital heart condition.
Though the embryos were not allowed to grow for longer than a few days, researchers have made clear that the goal is to be able to "correct" such disease-causing genes for future babies, thus, as The Washington Post puts its, "cracking open the doors to a controversial new era in medicine."
Here's how MIT Technology Review began its report last week on the groundbreaking study:
The first known attempt at creating genetically modified human embryos in the United States has been carried out by a team of researchers in Portland, Oregon, MIT Technology Review has learned.
The effort, led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov of Oregon Health and Science University, involved changing the DNA of a large number of one-cell embryos with the gene-editing technique CRISPR, according to people familiar with the scientific results. ...
Now Mitalipov is believed to have broken new ground both in the number of embryos experimented upon and by demonstrating that it is possible to safely and efficiently correct defective genes that cause inherited diseases.
The Post notes that the gene editing research is the first of its kind in the U.S. and the latest example of the potential uses of the cutting edge laboratory tool known as CRISPR (or Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), "molecular scissors" that are "pushing the boundaries of our ability to manipulate life," which "has been received with both excitement and horror."
MIT's report likewise touched on some of the mixed emotions involved in the "germline engineering" process (emphasis added):
In altering the DNA code of human embryos, the objective of scientists is to show that they can eradicate or correct genes that cause inherited disease, like the blood condition beta-thalassemia. The process is termed “germline engineering” because any genetically modified child would then pass the changes on to subsequent generations via their own germ cells—the egg and sperm.
Some critics say germline experiments could open the floodgates to a brave new world of “designer babies” engineered with genetic enhancements—a prospect bitterly opposed by a range of religious organizations, civil society groups, and biotech companies.
Mitalipov said that one day he hopes the technique he's using will be able to eradicate thousands of heritable diseases, including breast cancer. For now, the scientists involved are downplaying what they've achieved, but it sure looks like we're heading for Gattaca sooner rather than later.