Updated 11:56 AM EST, Fri, Jan 15, 2021

Ethical or Not? Chinese Scientists Perform Genetic Engineering on Human Embryos

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The world's eyes are set on China after its scientists confirmed editing of human embryos.

The research team, headed by Junjiu Huang, hails from the Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, The Telegraph reported. Their efforts of embryonic engineering stem from hopes of modifying the gene responsible for thalassaemia, an inherited condition affecting the blood.

What The Scientists Did

According to The New York Times, the researchers made use of defective human embryos, with the goal of producing one built on precisely-altered gene in each of its cells. Other DNA damage are not intended.

Experimenting on over 80 human embryos, the research, however, failed to have a favorable result. The subjects either had unaltered genes, ended with collateral damage, became "genetic mosaics" or died, The NY Times said.

The study specifically utilized tripronuclear (3PN) zygotes to investigate CRISPR / Cas9-mediated gene editing in human cells.

Ethical Considerations

While the study seems controversial at first glance, the paper indicated compliance to ethical guidelines. It states, "This study conformed to ethical standards of Helsinki Declaration and national legislation and was approved by the Medical Ethical Committee of the First Affiliated Hospital, Sun Yat-sen University. The patients donated their tripronuclear (3PN) zygotes for research and signed informed consent forms."

Nevertheless, critics warned that China has started to become the "Wild West" of genetic research, The Telegraph noted.

The outlet took note of Dr. David King remarks, Human Genetics Alert director, who said, "This news emphasizes the need for an immediate global ban on the creation of GM designer babies."

"It is entirely unnecessary since there are already many ethical ways to avoid thalassaemia. This research is a classic example of scientific careerism -- assuring one's place in the history books even though the research is unnecessary and unethical."

The researchers, on the other hand, stopped the study as they thought of its immaturity. Lead scientist Huang told Nature, "If you want to do it in normal embryos, you need to be close to 100%... That's why we stopped. We still think it's too immature."

As told by the United Press International, the study has been submitted to journals Science and Nature. Both outlets, however, denied publication, citing ethical reasons.

Thalassaemia Explained

Thalassaemia is a genetic condition caused by a genetic change in relation to hemoglobin -- that part of the blood which carries oxygen. Hemoglobin is composed of alpha and beta chains, Patient.co.uk wrote.

A patient with thalassaemia could have faulty alpha or beta chains, resulting in abnormal hemoglobin physiology.

Where Human Embryo Editing is "Legal"

The Business Insider cited several countries, where editing human embryos is legal. The United States is one of these, considered by a 2014 study as a special case, having very restrictive guidelines.

Click this link for a graphic reference (via Motoko Araki and Tetsuya Ishii of Hokkaido University).

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