A Swedish scientist reportedly is trying to edit the DNA of healthy human embryos to learn more about how genes regulate embryonic development.
Fredrik Lanner, a developmental biologist at the Karolinska Institutet, is the first researcher known to have broken the taboo against attempting to alter the genes of healthy human embryos, NPR reported Thursday.
Lanner hopes his work will lead to new ways to treat infertility and prevent miscarriages, and how stem cells can be used to treat disease. "Having children is one of the major drives for a lot of people," Lanner told NPR. "For people who do struggle with this, it can tend to become an extremely important part of your life.
He went on: "If we can understand how these early cells are regulated in the actual embryo, this knowledge will help us in the future to treat patients with diabetes, or Parkinson, or different types of blindness and other diseases. That's another exciting area of research."
Similar research is expected to get underway in Britain soon. The U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine is studying the issue and is expected to issue recommendations next year. Chinese researchers have been trying to edit genes in nonviable embryos.
Lanner said his research involves studying embryos for the first seven days. He said he won’t allow the embryos to develop beyond 14 days.
Lanner uses embryos donated by couples who had gone through in vitro fertilization. He has studied at least a dozen embryos so far, NPR said.
Business Insider noted it is unclear whether genes can be edited accurately.
Critics call Lanner’s research dangerous, arguing he could accidentally introduce an error that could lead to new diseases that could be passed down through generations or could open the door to designer babies.
"If we're going to be producing genetically modified babies, we are all too likely to find ourselves in a world where those babies are perceived to be biologically superior. And then we're in a world of genetic haves and have-nots," Marcy Darnovsky, who heads the watchdog Center for Genetics & Society, told NPR. "That could lead to all sorts of social disasters. It's not a world I want to live in."