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Jacob Corn: Genome editing at the crossroads of scandal and cure

CRISPR-​Cas technology allows the genome of cells to be altered relatively easily. This also brings the therapy of hereditary diseases within reach. (Visualisations: Colourbox).

Genetic modification of babies in China one year ago was universally condemned. At the same time, CRISPR treatments are on their way into our clinics. Jacob Corn explains the difference.

by Jacob Corn

A huge outcry broke out a year ago when Chinese researcher He Jiankui announced at a conference that he had modified the genome of multiple human embryos using CRISPR-​Cas technology. The embryos were implanted in a mother, who then gave birth to two genetically edited babies. A third edited baby has recently been reported.

Scientists around the globe are all in agreement: Under no circumstances, should modified embryos be implanted in a woman’s uterus or be brought to term.

In countries where it is permitted by law – Switzerland is not one of them – research with CRISPR may be carried out on human embryos under very strict conditions that include stopping the experiment after only 14 days and never implanting the embryos into a mother. But the entire global community has come together to agree that genome editing is not yet mature enough to modify the human germ line (ova and sperm). That’s because much is still not understood about how CRISPR-​Cas works (or doesn’t) in human embryos. We cannot rule out the possibility that application of the technology may result in changes other than those desired, and in potentially harmful modifications. When He Jiankui went ahead and made changes to the human germ line, he crossed a red line: the children born in China will one day pass on the changes in their genes to their offspring.

Continue reading this ETH Zukunftsblog post


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