While labeling, properly regulating, educating on, and even potentially banning Monsanto’s Roundup Ready GMOs has been the biggest focus of the non-GMO and organic movement, a new storm has been brewing in recent years.
The newest generation of GMOs, created through CRISPR gene editing, has many potential applications for misuse beyond the creation of new genetically engineered foods. Proponents say CRISPR can be the answer to many modern diseases, but the jury is still out.
The safety of the technology is still a huge question mark, especially after a recent Columbia University study found that CRISPR GMOs are capable of causing “hundreds of unpredictable gene mutations.”
And now, this same technology is in line for potentially being used to genetically edit human embryos that may be used down the road for human reproduction, critics fear.
New GMO Process to Create “Designer Humans?”
This past week, a paper published in Nature focused on the work of Oregon Health and Science University researcher Shoukhrat Mitalipov, who along with his colleagues reported on the possibility of gene edited human embryos with the expressed purpose of using the technology to “rescue mutant embryos, increase the number of embryos available for transfer and ultimately improve pregnancy rates.”
While their stated goal sounds admirable on the surface, critics and skeptics say that this type of research may have a different aim in the long term: genetically modified human babies.
“This is a pivotal point in the push toward genetically modified humans,” said Marcy Darnovsky, PhD, Executive Director of the Center for Genetics and Society, as noted on the Center’s website GeneticsandSociety.org.
Damovsky believes that Mitalipov’s team has ignored the scientific community’s requests and moved forward despite longstanding concerns.
“A small group of scientists and closed committees have taken it upon themselves to move forward with reproductive germline modification technologies, scorning repeated calls by scientists, scholars, regulatory bodies, and civil society organizations around the world to keep this use of genetic engineering off limits,” adding that the team “flagrantly disregarded” widespread calls for democratic deliberation and public engagement on the matter.
The team’s findings were surprising to say the least, however, and may have cast doubt on the future of gene-edited humans.
Researchers Surprised by Gene Edited Embryo Results
According to this article on StatNews.com, the process in question undertaken by Mitalipov’s team’s biggest finding during the experiment was that human embryos’ natural preference for their parent’s gene is “is very strong, and they won’t use anything else.”
During the experiment, they attempted to supply a healthy replacement gene to 112 different embryos designed to take the place of a mutated, heart-disease-causing gene. But all of the embryos ignored it, and instead copied the healthy gene from their mother to use in place of their father’s gene.
The discovery means that so-called “designer babies” with desired traits may be far more difficult to produce than originally thought. But it also showed that utilizing the technology to offer novel disease prevention capabilities in babies may be possible after all (learn more about the full process in the Stat article here).
At any rate, the side effects of such gene editing processes are still most unknown as the aforementioned Columbia study showed.
Scientists like Damovsky are urging caution for other reasons as well.
“Allowing any form of human germline modification leaves the way open for all kinds – especially when fertility clinics start offering ‘genetic upgrades’ to those able to afford them,” she said as noted in this article from GMWatch. “Once those commercial dynamics kick in, we could all too easily find ourselves in a world where some people’s children are considered biologically superior to the rest of us. We need to ask ourselves whether we want that new kind of excuse for extreme social disparities we already tolerate.”