In a world first, Chinese scientists have reported editing the genomes of human embryos. The results are published in the online journal Protein & Cell and confirm widespread rumours that such experiments had been conducted—rumours that sparked a high-profile debate last month about the ethical implications of such work.
In the paper, researchers led by Junjiu Huang, a gene-function researcher at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, tried to head off such concerns by using ‘non-viable’ embryos, which cannot result in a live birth, that were obtained from local fertility clinics. The team attempted to modify the gene responsible for β-thalassaemia, a potentially fatal blood disorder, using a gene-editing technique known as CRISPR/Cas9. The researchers say that their results reveal serious obstacles to using the method in medical applications.
“I believe this is the first report of CRISPR/Cas9 applied to human pre-implantation embryos and as such the study is a landmark, as well as a cautionary tale,” says George Daley, a stem-cell biologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston. “Their study should be a stern warning to any practitioner who thinks the technology is ready for testing to eradicate disease genes.”
Some say that gene editing in embryos could have a bright future because it could eradicate devastating genetic diseases before a baby is born. Others say that such work crosses an ethical line: researchers warned in Nature in March that because the genetic changes to embryos, known as germline modification, are heritable, they could have an unpredictable effect on future generations. Researchers have also expressed concerns that any gene-editing research on human embryos could be a slippery slope towards unsafe or unethical uses of the technique.
So where does Canada go from here?
The combination of a presidential veto threat on the Keystone XL pipeline, an uncertain State Department outcome, low oil prices and environmental challenges to alternative pipeline proposals has put the northern nation in a financial and policy bind. The uncertainty raises the question of whether Canada will make a renewed push to develop new oil sands pipelines in its own country that have also stalled or are moving slowly.
Yet many analysts say that is not likely to happen, at least not this year, because of looming national elections in Canada, regulatory processes that could take years and lingering environmental challenges.
Indeed, Canadian officials continue to say they are expecting a KXL approval when asked about a Plan B. At the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C., last week, Canadian Minister of Natural Resources Greg Rickford repeatedly said that nothing has changed his mind about an approval after meeting directly with State Department officials. “Prime Minister [Stephen] Harper and myself believe this is a question of when as opposed to if,” he said when asked what Canada was doing to prepare for a possible rejection.
Looming over the government’s oil sands policy is Canada’s first national election in four years to select a prime minister and Parliament. The elections are scheduled for October, although they could occur before then.
Currently, Harper’s Conservative Party—which has made oil sands development a central objective—is running close in polls with the Liberal Party, which supports some oil sands pipelines but not all of them. The New Democratic Party—which is opposed to TransCanada Corp.’s KXL—is also a factor. There are no term limits for Harper.