Embryo

World’s first genetically modified human embryo raises ethical concern – by Hannah Brown

The genetic modification of humans make many people feel very uncomfortable. Credit: Tatiana Vdb/Manuel/Flickr, CC BY

It all started with a rumour. Then just six weeks ago, a warning rang out in the scientific journal Nature, expressing “grave concerns regarding the ethical and safety implications” of creating the world’s first genetically-modified human embryo.

Then last week, a Chinese group from Sun Yat-sen University, reported that they had, in fact, done it: they had created the first genetically-modified human embryo.

They reported that, in a world first, they had taken “human tripronuclear embryos”, and altered mutant DNA that causes the human disease β-thalassemia, which is life-threatening and affects 100,000 people worldwide.

But one person’s stern warning is another’s delight. The promise of technologies like this – to cure diseases like cystic fibrosis or Huntington’s, or even to remove the BRCA mutation, which dramatically increases a woman’s risk of dying from breast or ovarian cancer – have been exciting biologists for years.

Cut and paste

So what exactly did the Chinese researchers do? And why has it caused such an uproar?

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