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This is an animation that explains the CRISPR-Cas9 method for genome editing, an emerging technology with many applications in biomedical research, including the potential to treat or even prevent human genetic disease, such as congenital blindness.

The CRISPR interference technique has many potential applications, including altering the germline of humans, animals, and food crops. Bioethical concerns have been expressed about the prospect of using this very new biotechnology for editing the human germline.

At least four labs in the US and labs in China and in the UK announced plans for ongoing research to apply CRISPR to human embryos. However, scientists, including a CRISPR co-inventor, urged a worldwide moratorium on applying CRISPR to the human germline, saying, “scientists should avoid even attempting, in lax jurisdictions, germline genome modification for clinical application in humans” until the full implications “are discussed among scientific and governmental organizations”.  These scientists support basic research on CRISPR but do not see CRISPR as developed enough to implement in clinical use or in making heritable changes to people. 

In December 2015, the International Summit on Human Gene Editing took place in Washington, DC. A specific distinction was made between clinical use in somatic cells, where the effects of edits are limited to a single individual, versus germline cells, where genome changes could be inherited by future generations.

Altering of gametocytes and embryos to generate inheritable changes in humans was claimed irresponsible. These agreements, of course won’t stop (and probably haven’t already) those who don’t share these ethics. There may be edited humans born by 2017!

In February 2016, British scientists were given permission by regulators to genetically modify human embryos by using CRISPR-Cas9 and related techniques. The embryos are supposed to be destroyed after seven days of development…

Alexandra Bruce

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Alexandra Bruce

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