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Fixing Bad Genes: A First!

By Shlomo Maital

Shoukhrat Mitalipov  

   Virtually at the same time — President Trump proposes legislation to limit immigration to the U.S. and an immigrant from Kazakhstan named Shoukhrat Mitalipov manages, for the first time, to ‘edit’ mutated genes in embryos and ‘cure’ genetic disease, enabling the babies to be born healthy.

     This is hugely significant. Parents who undergo genetic testing, and who test their unborn babies, are at times tragically told: Your unborn infant carries a ‘bad’ gene that will make him sick or even die.

       The parents ask: What can we do?

       The tragic answer, until now — Nothing. Abort or —     accept its fate.

         There have been 3 previous published instances of gene editing, all in China.   According to MIT Technology Review:   “Now Mitalipov is believed to have broken new ground both in the number of embryos experimented upon and by demonstrating that it is possible to safely and efficiently correct defective genes that cause inherited diseases. Although none of the embryos were allowed to develop for more than a few days—and there was never any intention of implanting them into a womb—the experiments are a milestone on what may prove to be an inevitable journey toward the birth of the first genetically modified humans.”

   How did he do it?

   Mitalipov and his team used CRISPR Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats. CRISPR is now the dominant technology for gene editing. Try as I might, I do not know enough biology to explain how it works. The initial work was done in Japan, at Osaka University.

     CRISPR often makes mistakes – disastrous if you are trying to heal a bad gene. Mitalipov figured out how to avoid those mistakes.

   Who is he?

   “Born in Kazakhstan when it was part of the former Soviet Union, Mitalipov has for years pushed scientific boundaries. In 2007, he unveiled the world’s first cloned monkeys. Then, in 2013, he created human embryos through cloning, as a way of creating patient-specific stem cells.”

       Is it coincidence that Mitalipov is an immigrant? I don’t think so. By definition an outsider,   such ‘outsiders’ try daring things that those comfortably within the establishment might not.

     Is there any reason to worry?

   Yes.  We can genetically modify embryos. We can do this to cure gene defects – or to modify embryos to make taller kids (NBA), smarter kids (Einsteins), or handsomer kids, or blonde kids… etc.

       “Some critics say germline experiments could open the floodgates to a brave new world of “designer babies” engineered with genetic enhancements—a prospect bitterly opposed by a range of religious organizations, civil society groups, and biotech companies.  The U.S. intelligence community last year called CRISPR a potential “weapon of mass destruction.”

 

 

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Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
October 2017
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