Just because you’re able to do something doesn’t necessarily mean that you should do it. In no other field of science does that age-old adage ring true than when it comes to fertility and the study of embryos, genetics and testing.
Well, that debate is front and centre again now that scientists have figured out a way to “edit out” genetic defects from human embryos, bringing forward a slew of ethical questions. But let’s back up a second, shall we?
A research team led by the Oregon Health and Science University found that they were able to successfully alter DNA in embryos and eliminate a disease-causing gene. Scientists programmed a tool to cut out the mutated gene, and then allowed the embryo to naturally fix the damaged strand of DNA. Furthermore, by cutting out a gene that caused a heart defect, the disease (called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy) would theoretically also be prevented from being passed down from generation to generation.
Pretty cool, huh?
“I for one believe, and this paper supports the view, that ultimately gene editing of human embryos can be made safe,” the dean of Harvard Medical School, George Daley, told CTV News.
It’s important to note that for now, this research is only being done in the lab — scientists aren’t ready to attempt this kind of genetic alteration in the womb yet. And these researchers also targeted one very specific gene mutation, so there’s still plenty of research to be done.
Naturally, this raises two major ethical topics: creating designer babies and erasing undesirable qualities in fetuses. The jury is also still out on how altering such things truly effects genetic lines down the road, given how relatively new all the research is.
Still, when it comes to disease prevention, this is a pretty cool advancement if we do say so ourselves. But that also brings us back to our original question: just because we can do something, does that mean we should do it?
And the debate continues…