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Genetic Editing and the Human Embryo

The field of genetic engineering made a big announcement last week. Scientists at the Oregon Health and Science University were able to successfully edit genes of a human embryo.

This a major scientific advancement and a way to potentially ward off disease, particularly chronic genetic diseases like early-on set Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, Tay-Sachs, sickle cell anemia or cystic fibrosis, to name a few. The technique called CRISPR, involves editing or replacing very specific sections of DNA, which means the disease would be eradicated from the entire gene pool and so spare future generations from inheriting the diseases.

While this is an exciting new development, there is also—especially for many worried about the moral implications of such a process—reason to be concerned. Gene editing could lead to “designer babies,” some say, where parents will be able to edit an embryo for certain coveted traits—intelligence, eye color, height, for example. But because such attributes and traits are located throughout the DNA and not on any one isolated gene, designer babies becoming a reality is pretty far fetched.

However, most doctors agree that if the FDA approves genetic engineering and genetic editing of embryos, strict guidelines would need to be in place before the procedure could be widely performed. What does this mean in terms of human reproductive health and fertility treatment? While it would be wonderful to edit out harmful genetic diseases from an embryo, and so ensure a healthy pregnancy and live birth, couples need not go so far as to genetically edit embryos. We already have a wonderful technology that can help screen embryos prior to implantation— Pre-implantation genetic screening or PGS.

According to doctors cited in these articles, couples looking for a way to bypass genetic disease consider PGS a good alternative.