Friday, August 14, 2020

Gene-edited embryos experiment with CRISPR ends disastrously

Scientists at the Francis Crick Institute conducted a gene-editing experiment with CRISPR, leading to unintended side effects to the embryos. Kathy Niakan and her team set out to remove a particular gene in embryos (donated for research) in order to better understand how that gene works. After editing out the gene in the embryos, comparison with other un-edited embryos revealed that around half the edited embryos had multiple unintended edits, OneZero says.

The experiment didn’t cross the legal 14-day limit while working with human embryos, and the embryos were destroyed soon after the experiment ended. The findings from the experiment were posted on bioRxiv, but haven’t been peer-reviewed or scrutinized yet. The failed attempt at using CRISPR without unintended side effects serve as a warning for those wanting to take gene-editing a step further, creating pregnancies.

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Two years ago, He Jiankui, a Chinese scientist, made headlines when he revealed that his team had created the world’s first gene-edited babies. He had used CRISPR on twin human embryo, later creating an illegal pregnancy. Though he and his team had announced the creation of the embryos, they didn’t acknowledge that they formed an illegal pregnancy. Reportedly, three babies have been born from the gene-edited embryos. 

He Jiankui, a Chinese researcher shown here at a conference last year in Hong Kong, has been sentenced to three years in prison. | Image: Kin Cheung/AP

The court’s statement according to SCMP “None of the three defendants acquired doctor’s qualifications. [They] craved fame and fortune and deliberately went against the country’s regulations on scientific research and medical management. [They] went beyond the bottom lines of scientific research and medical ethics.” The Post also reports that the He Jiankui organized his team with foreign staff, and used sub-par technology with questionable safety to perform the gene-editing. 

The 14-day rule was established worldwide to avoid situations like this. One alternative to using human embryos is using human embryo models to see past the 14-day legal window and learn more about the embryo development process. Recently, a human ‘model’ embryo was grown from stem cells for the first time in a collaboration between scientists from the University of Cambridge and the Netherlands-based Hubrecht Institute. This allowed for unprecedented insight into the development process, past the 14-day window.

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However, a human embryo model can never develop fully due to the lack of brain cells and other womb-dependent tissue.

What is CRISPR?

CRISPR was first introduced in 2013 as a revolutionary gene-editing tool.

How CRISPR works. | Image: VOX Media

In the first of its clinical trials, CRISPR helped in safely editing the genomes of three cancer patients in the U.S. Scientists safely edited the immune system genetically of three cancer patients using the revolutionary technique. Researchers removed genes from the typical T-cells that help fight cancer. Instead, they combined genes from a virus that positively attacks the tumor cells with the T-cell.

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