Monday, April 11, 2016

Ethics and Embryos

In terms of ethics, studies involving human subjects are constantly questioned. Many people fear the consequences of "designer babies" or unpredictable outcomes of altering DNA in such a complex organism at crucial stages, while others argue the benefits of eliminating dangerous heritable diseases. While the debate of ethics continues in America continues today, April 2016, scientists in China have moved past talking, and into testing the possible benefits of gene editing in human embryos. Nearly a year ago, April 2015, Protein and Cell published a controversial article about a Chinese study led by Junjiu Huang on genetic modification of human embryos. In this study, embryos were injected with an enzyme complex known as CISPR/Cas9, a tool that binds and splices DNA at specific locations. With this technique Huang and his colleagues attempted to edit the HBB gene, which may mutate to cause beta thalassemia. Unfortunately, their experiments was considered unsuccessful for many reasons. Firstly, 71 out of the original 86 embryos survived the first 48 hours after injection. Of the 71 surviving embryos, most were tested and a mere 28 had been successfully spliced. The experiment was halted with such a low success rate, and unexpectedly numerous additional mutations.

 An article published in Nature's news section noted that Huang's study was rejected for publications by both Nature and Science magazines due to the great question of ethics. Throughout the articles I have found, I am definitely curious about the ethics of this study too. While the experiment is clear, I have many questions about the before and after details of the study, as I imagine that many people within this ethical debate do. In the Nature article, there were multiple times in which the use of "abnormal" embryos and avoidance of "normal" embryos in these types of studies were mentions. What makes the embryo normal or abnormal?  Where do the embryos come from and what happens to them after the study? While I think that genetic modifications of human embryos could be an important technique to eliminating genetically coded issues such as diseases, it is a very difficult and risky task due to the numerous issues of ethics brought to light within this research. 

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