The Current

Study 'editing' human DNA in embryos divides scientists

Earlier this year, a controversial science experiment in China where scientists "edit" a human embryo, to tweak its DNA, has some calling for a moratorium on anything like it in the future. But others say, it offers hope for a much brighter future.
Research done by a University in China, has scientists 'editing' the human genome in an embryo, that could eventually prevent children from being born with severe birth defects, as a result of their genetic makeup. (Godverbs, Flickr cc)

"The day could come where people would look at children with genetic abnormalities and think, how could their parents have done that to them, why didn't they genetically alter when they had the chance." - Kerry Bowman, Bioethicist 

Earlier this year, scientists working at a university in China did something that other scientists around the world said crossed a line. Their research experiment involved doing something the scientific community had long expected would happen, but which no one had dared to do yet.

For the first time ever, they did a sort of genetic modification on a human embryo. It's euphemistically described as "editing" the human genome. And it's the type of work that could eventually prevent children from being born with severe birth defects, as a result of their genetic makeup.

But where some see hope, others have grave fears. Because the type of genetic "edits" they're pursuing would be permanent with the changes passed down through future generations.

The experiment may have been ground breaking, but it's proven so controversial that high profile scientific journals have refused to publish the research.

Sara Reardon has been covering this issue. She is a biomedical reporter with the journal Nature's news service.

The research we've been discussing has sparked some wide-ranging debate from those saying that it could be a boon for future generations... to those calling for a moratorium on any further research.

  • Kerry Bowman is a bio-ethicist at the University of Toronto.
  • Jehannine Austin is an Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Medical Genetics at the University of British Columbia, and Canada Research Chair in Translational Psychiatric Genomics. 

What do you think of where this genetic science is taking us? Does it make you hopeful or fearful?

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​This segment was produced by The Current's Sarah Grant.