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U.S. Scientists Researching Gene Editing In Human Embryos


Should scientists be trying to edit the genes in human embryos? That's the question being raised again by a new experiment that NPR has discovered is underway in the United States. These scientists say they are not trying to create any genetically modified babies - yet. The world condemned a scientist in China who recently announced he had done that. But this research is still controversial. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein broke the news about this experiment this morning, and he's here in the studio. Hi, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Oh, hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: You report that this experiment is being conducted at Columbia University in New York. Give us the details.

STEIN: Yeah, so the research is being led by a scientist by the name of Dieter Egli. And he's a developmental biologist at Columbia. And the first thing to make clear, as you said, is he's not trying to make any gene-edited babies right now. He agrees that doing something that would be irresponsible and unethical. He says he's just trying to do the basic research to find out if it's really possible to someday use this powerful new gene-editing technique - it's called CRISPR - to safely repair genetic mutations in human embryos. And the idea is that doctors someday might be able to use this to prevent diseases and other disorders. In this case, Egli's trying to fix a mutation that causes blindness.

SHAPIRO: So this is very different from what happened in China. Remind us how these two experiments differ from each other.

STEIN: Yeah, that one was a real shocker. A scientist in China - his name was He Jiankui - he announced that two twin girls had been born using embryos that he had edited in his lab. And he said he did it to enhance their immune systems to make them immune to the AIDS virus. But that was widely condemned. And the reason is most scientists think that he just rushed ahead and did this way too soon. Nobody knows if this kind of thing works and if it's safe. So people are really worried about the health of these two little girls.

SHAPIRO: OK, so the scientist in New York says he's trying to answer those underlying questions that he says the scientists in China did not answer. Explain why even that is controversial.

STEIN: Yeah, so the critics say even just doing the basic research - these kinds of experiments - could encourage other scientists to go rogue and that these kinds of experiments are just kind of, like, laying out a road map for how it could be abused, for example, to make, you know, designer babies. And that raises all kinds of, you know, scary "Brave New World" scenarios about IVF clinics popping up all over the place offering to create, you know, genetic super babies. And here's Ben Hurlbut. He's a bioethicist at Arizona State University. And this is what he says about this.

BEN HURLBUT: If we've learned anything from what's happened in China, it's that the urge to race ahead pushes science to shoot first and ask questions later. But this is a domain where we should be asking questions first and maybe never shooting.

SHAPIRO: I know you visited the researcher at Columbia University in his lab. How does he respond to this critique?

STEIN: So he defends what he's doing. He says, look; I'm not trying to make any genetic babies - any designer babies. I'm doing the opposite of what happened in China. I'm be very careful and very methodical. Let's listen to a little bit about what he told me.

DIETER EGLI: The research is absolutely needed to determine what are the risks, what is the potential benefit. And without research, we'll never be able to make that judgment.

STEIN: And he's being very open about what he's doing. He even let me spend some time in his lab recently as he injected human eggs with sperm carrying this blindness mutation he's trying to fix and then did his experiment where he then injected this CRISPR gene-editing tool to see if it would repair the mutation. Here's a moment from that experiment.

EGLI: I just pierced the egg. Now I'm injecting the sperm. Sperm is inside, along with the CRISPR tool.

STEIN: Oh, it's so fast.

SHAPIRO: It's amazing to listen to advancements in science happening there in that audio. So what happens next?

STEIN: So Egli is now analyzing the results of his experiment, you know, to see if it's working. And major scientific organizations around the world are trying to come up with some kind of uniform standards to see scientists could ethically use this powerful new gene-editing technology to make changes in human DNA and human embryos.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Thank you.

STEIN: Oh, sure - nice to be here, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE SCHOLARS' "JOE METRO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.