As part of a landmark new study, scientists in the US have successfully edited the DNA of human embryos in an effort to prevent babies being born with genetic mutations and diseases.
News of the groundbreaking, yet controversial experiment began to circulate last week, however more details were released to the public on Wednesday when the paper was published in the journal, Nature.
This is the first time this type of gene editing has been carried out in the United States, and while the results could pave the way for a total wipe out of inherited diseases, experts have warned of the need to answer the ethical and legal questions surrounding the work.
The controversy lies not in the potential correction of disease causing genes, but instead with the possible alteration of personal characteristics such as intelligence, height, facial structure and eye colour.
According to The Independent, Professor Peter Braude from King's College London observed that the results of the experiment means “the possibility of germline genome editing has moved from future fantasy to the world of possibility, and the debate about its use, outside of fears about the safety of the technology, needs to run to catch up.”
In order to conduct the study, scientists first fertilised eggs with sperm cells that included a gene that causes a heart condition known for causing sudden death in young competitive athletes.
As the eggs were fertilised, researchers applied a gene-editing tool, which works by cutting away the defective parts of the gene and allowing the cell to repair itself.
The experiment proved successful in preventing the spread of a disease that usually has a 50 per cent chance of being passed on in 42 of 58 embryos.
“Every generation on would carry this repair because we’ve removed the disease-causing gene variant from that family’s lineage,” said lead researcher, Dr Shoukhrat Mitalipov, from Oregon Health and Science University.
“By using this technique, it’s possible to reduce the burden of this inheritable disease on the family and eventually the human population.”
As it stands, using these types of treatments on humans is illegal, though some experts say they expect the law will soon change.
However, they have also warned that the legal and ethical frameworks need to catch up with the technology so as not to allow for the creation of designer babies.