The step by the developmental biologist Fredrik Lanner makes him the first researcher known to attempt to modify the genes of healthy human embryos. That has long been considered taboo because of safety and ethical concerns.
Lanner is attempting to edit genes in human embryos to learn more about how the genes regulate early embryonic development. He hopes the work could lead to new ways to treat infertility and prevent miscarriages. He also hopes to help scientists learn more about embryonic stem cells so they can someday use them to treat many diseases.
The fear is that Lanner’s work could open the door to others attempting to use genetically modified embryos to make babies.
Making changes to the DNA in human embryos could accidentally introduce an error into the human gene pool, inadvertently creating a new disease that would be passed down for generations, critics say.
Some also worry the experiments could open the door to so-called designer babies that would let parents pick and choose the traits of their children.
Lanner, however, says he is initially planning only to study the modified embryos for the first seven days of their growth and would never let them develop past 14 days. The potential benefits could be enormous, he argues.
“Having children is one of the major drives for a lot of people,” Lanner says. “For people who do struggle with this, it can tend to become an extremely important part of your life.”
Lanner also hopes to learn things that could help scientists who are trying to turn stem cells from human embryos into new treatments for diseases.
“If we can understand how these early cells are regulated in the actual embryo, this knowledge with help us in the future to treat patients with diabetes, or Parkinson, or different types of blindness and other diseases,” he says. …