Lawmakers Try to Stop Embryo Editing and Three-Parent Embryos

Members of Congress want to stop research that allows scientists to edit the genome of human embryos. REUTERS/National Human Genome Research Institute

For some time, the concept of "designer babies" has freaked out the public, viewed as some kind of far away science fiction. But with the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2001 and progress in the field of genetics, manipulation of genes is close to becoming a reality, and much sooner than any of us could have imagined. That is, unless opponents put the kibosh on the research.

The U.S. House of Representatives has proposed legislation that could potentially halt progress on studies to alter genetic material of embryos. The 2016 spending bill from Congress would prevent the U.S. Food and Drug Administration from conducting trials on embryo editing by eliminating funds for this type of research. Additionally, the bill would require the FDA to appoint a panel bioethicists and experts from religious-based medical organizations to review a soon-to-be-published report from the Institute of Medicine that examines the controversy of human embryo editing. The report will review the research projects already in progress on embryo editing, and also outline its potential uses in the field of reproductive medicine and genetics.

In April, scientists in Guangzhou, China, published their study in the journal Protein & Cell, in which the team used the protein CRISPR/Cas9 to cut and replace genetic material. The embryo produced wouldn't have developed into a fetus, but the success of the study proved it was possible to manipulate genes with the technique.

This research could potentially allow parents to stop genetic diseases such as Tay Sachs and Down Syndrome in its tracks by making three-parent embryos a reality. Embryo editing could allow a mother to replace faulty genes with genes from a different woman.

When the paper was published, many scientists in the field expressed concern about the ethics of this research. According to the journal Nature, it is still legal to conduct privately-funded experiments on gene editing but current bill would make it nearly impossible to conduct clinical trials with government money.

But the National Institutes of Health released a statement confirming that a law passed in 1996 already places restrictions on editing human embryos. The Dickey-Wicker amendment prohibits researchers from using funds in which human embryos are destroyed.

"Advances in technology have given us an elegant new way of carrying out genome editing, but the strong arguments against engaging in this activity remain. These include the serious and unquantifiable safety issues, ethical issues presented by altering the germline in a way that affects the next generation without their consent, and a current lack of compelling medical applications justifying the use of CRISPR/Cas9 in embryos," the agency said in a statement issued in April.