The genetic eye disease Retinitis Pigmentosa is the target of gene editing research on human embryos by Dr. Dietrich Elgi at Columbia University. National Public Radio reported on this research1 shortly after a Chinese scientist announced he had created the world’s first two gene-edited babies.2 Both scientists use the CRISPR tool to genetically modify human embryos. However, the experiments at Columbia are for research purposes only. These embryos are destroyed within one day for study.
Creating genetically modified human babies is illegal worldwide. The edited genes will be passed down to future generations. Genetic modifications could have dangerous or even lethal side effects. Also, “designer babies” would start a competition to build ideal humans. They might be modified for non-medical reasons such as strength or intelligence.
Ethics of Gene Editing
Scientific research is subject to ethics oversight. The Chinese genetic researcher, He Jiankui, acted independently and without approval. He said that engineering resistance to HIV outweighed any ethical concerns.
The scientific community disagreed. The Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen put He Jiankui on unpaid leave. A local medical ethics board is investigating.
Retinitis pigmentosa is relatively rare, affecting 1 in 3,700 people. The cause is one of a host of over 100 different genetic mutations. The problem may lie with the genes that affect rod and cone photoreceptors, particularly the rods essential for side and night vision. The disease can also manifest as retinal pigment epithelium mutations or abnormalities in the retina. Symptoms include gradual vision loss, poor adaptation to light changes, and difficulty seeing at night. Patients may also have limited peripheral vision and certain types of color blindness.
People who have a mutated gene for retinitis pigmentosa would welcome giving birth to children who are neither afflicted nor carriers. Treatment options for this eye disease are limited. (Editor’s Note: Please see our page on natural support for Retinitis Pigmentosa)
Dr. Elgi’s research at Columbia is carefully approved and monitored by a panel of bioethicists and other scientists. In the future, he plans to allow the embryos to develop further. However, the embryos are not intended for implantation. They are not meant to develop into a full-term baby.
Genetic research is underway for several other clearly genetic eye diseases, including Fuch’s Corneal Dystrophy, Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy, and Leber Congenital Amaurosis. The majority of eye diseases, such as cataracts, macular degeneration, and glaucoma, are influenced more by lifestyle than any genetic predisposition.
- New U.S. Experiments Aim To Create Gene-Edited Human Embryos, February 1, 2019, 5:00 AM ET. Morning Edition. National Public Radio. Rob Stein ↩
- Chinese Scientist Says He’s First To Create Genetically Modified Babies Using CRISPR. November 26, 20185:02 AM ET. Morning Edition. National Public Radio. Rob Stein ↩