Parents would do anything to protect their child and keep them safe. But how would you feel about altering them before birth to prevent a disease?
According the BBC News, Chinese researchers have found a way to perform “chemical surgery” on human embryos to remove disease. Using lab-made embryos, they removed the disease beta-thalassemia by altering fundamental building blocks of DNA – adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine, or A, C, G, and T. Those four encoded bases are responsible for building and running the human body, according to the article.
The disease that was edited out is “a blood disorder that reduces the production of hemoglobin…the iron-containing protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen to cells throughout the body”, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. People who have beta thalassemia can lack oxygen in many parts of the body due to low hemoglobin levels.
The researchers found the error in the DNA and then converted the G to an A, which corrected the fault. “We are the first to demonstrate the feasibility of curing genetic disease in human embryos by base editor system,” stated researcher Junjiu Huang. Furthermore, Huang said that the study makes it possible to treat patients and prevent beta-thalassemia in babies, and potentially, other genetic diseases.
However, before moving forward, more research must be done. While this may be exciting news, it’s also bringing “deep ethical and societal debate about what is and is not acceptable in efforts to prevent disease.”
Prof Robin Lovell-Badge, from the Francis Crick Institute in London, said we probably won’t be seeing these procedures performed anytime soon. “There would need to be far more debate, covering the ethics, and how these approaches should be regulated.
“And in many countries, including China, there needs to be more robust mechanisms established for regulation, oversight, and long-term follow-up.”
While this breakthrough is intriguing and hopeful, more research must happen to alleviate the unknown risks and potential complications. Eradicating one disease while causing other problems may not be very beneficial. Additionally, making sure testing is done ethically is important.
Perhaps we are one step closer to curing inherited diseases, similar to how vaccines have curbed outbreaks of infectious and dangerous illnesses, but the issue of ethics still remains:
If money was not an issue, would you consider opting for this “chemical surgery” to prevent disease in your child?