Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : September 26th 2016 Contents A scientist in Sweden has started
trying to edit the DNA in healthy
human embryos, NPR reported on
its Morning Edition radio show last
week (September 22).
The step by the developmental
biologist Fredrik Lanner makes him
the first researcher known to
attempt to modify the genes of
healthy human embryos. That has
long been considered taboo because
of safety and ethical concerns, NPR
Lanner is attempting to edit genes
in human embryos to learn more
about how the genes regulate early
embryonic development. He hopes
the work could lead to new ways
to treat infertility and prevent mis-
carriages. He also hopes to help sci-
entists learn more about embryonic
stem cells so they can someday use
them to treat many diseases.
The fear is that Lanner s work
could open the door to others
attempting to use genetically mod-
ified embryos to make babies.
Making changes to the DNA in
human embryos could accidentally
introduce an error into the human
gene pool, inadvertently creating a
new disease that would be passed
down for generations, critics say.
Some also worry the experiments
could open the door to so-called
designer babies that would let par-
ents pick and choose the traits of
Lanner, however, says he is ini-
tially planning only to study the
modified embryos for the first seven
days of their growth and would
never let them develop past 14 days.
The potential benefits could be
enormous, he argues.
"Having children is one of the
major drives for a lot of people,"
Lanner says. "For people who do
struggle with this, it can tend to
become an extremely important
part of your life."
Lanner also hopes to learn things
that could help scientists who are
trying to turn stem cells from
human embryos into new treat-
ments for diseases.
"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 dif-
ferent types of blindness and other
diseases," he says. "That s another
exciting area of research."
NPR reported last week that it
recently got exclusive access to Lan-
ner s labs at the Karolinska Institute
in Stockholm to watch some of his
early efforts. During the visit, Lan-
ner and a graduate student carefully
thawed five embryos donated by
couples who had gone through in
vitro fertilisation at the Karolinska
University Hospital to try to have
One of the embryos didn t survive
the freezing and thawing process.
The researchers gingerly placed each
of the remaining two-day-old
embryos into a dish on a special
microscope. With Lanner looking
on, the student injected one of each
embryo s four cells with a genetic
engineering tool known as CRISPR-
Cas9 while holding the embryo in
place with a thin glass rod.
The gene-editing tool comprises
two molecules that can zero in on
individual genes and make very pre-
cise changes to the DNA. It lets sci-
entists modify DNA much more
easily and precisely than ever before.
Lanner calls the technique a "game
"It s not just quicker or cheaper,"
Lanner says. "This actually opens
the door to start to look at this for
the first time, because we could not
do this at all previously in the
human embryo. The technology was
just not efficient enough to try to
look at individual gene function as
the embryo develops."
Lanner is planning to methodi-
cally knock out a series of genes
that he has identified through pre-
vious work as being crucial to nor-
mal embryonic development. He
hopes that will help him learn more
about what the genes do and which
ones cause infertility.
He declined to specify which
genes he s targeting until the work
is reviewed and published.
But just the act of attempting to
edit the DNA in healthy human
embryos is extremely controversial.
Chinese scientists triggered an
international uproar earlier last year
when they tried to edit the DNA of
human embryos even though they
used only defective embryos that
had no hope of developing.
Some people have moral objec-
tions to doing any research on
human embryos because they con-
sider a human embryo to have the
moral standing of a person.
And editing the DNA in embryos
is controversial even among people
who think human embryonic
research is acceptable. That s the
position of Marcy Darnovsky, who
heads the Center for Genetics &
Society, a watchdog group based in
California that supports human
embryonic research. (NPR)
body & soul
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A surgeon who wants to carry out
the first ever head transplant says
the first one could take place as early
as next year.
Prof Sergio Canavero told BBC
Newsbeat last week that he s got lots
of volunteers from the UK who want
it done. The procedure would see the
patient using a donor body and having
their head fitted to it.
However gruesome it sounds, Prof
Canevero is confident the technology
is now in place to make it a reality.
"It s not a decade, it s not years and
I expect to have everything ready to
roll by the end of 2017," he told BBC
"Of course when it will take place
depends on the availability of a suitable
brain donor. The last facial transplant
took several months to be brought to
fruition because there was not a suit-
able donor at the time, but the tech
will be there."
Despite the huge risk in having the
operation, the surgeon says he s got
lots of willing people who want to
have the transplant.
"The list of patients is so long and
several of the patients are from the
UK. The UK does have the possibility
to do this sort of surgery and it might
really take place in the UK, or in Ger-
many or in France."
Valery Spiridonov is 31 and suffers
from Werdnig-Hoffman s---a muscle-
wasting disease which has left him in
Speaking on ITV s Good Morning
Britain, he says he s willing to having
his head transplanted onto a different
"Today my life is pretty tough, I
need to rely on people to help me every
day---even twice a day because I need
someone to take me off my bed and
put me in my wheelchair.
"It makes my life pretty dependent
on other people. If there is a way to
change this, I believe it should be tried
How could a head transplant work?
The surgeon claims the transplant
would take 150 medical staff 36 hours
to carry out the operation. He says
the first step would be to freeze the
head and body to stop brain cells from
The neck would then be cut and
tubes connecting key arteries and veins
Then comes the tricky part---cutting
the spinal cord. It ll be done with a
special knife made from diamonds
because of their strength.
The head is then moved onto the
donor body and the spinal chords fused
together with a special type of glue.
Muscles, veins and organs are then
reattached and the skin is stitched
Professor Canavero says they ll be
testing the procedure first on brain-
dead living donors.
"We will simply cut the surgical
cord, and over six to 12 hours, monitor
their recovery and neuro-physiological
conduction (electrical impulses).
"We now have a better substance
that can renew the severed spinal cord.
Something that when you put it there,
you work the miracle of reconnecting.
The results that we got are so astound-
Is it acceptable to do research on human embryos? One scientist has
already started to try to edit the genes in healthy embryos.
Scientist seeks to edit DNA of healthy human embryos
Surgeon wants to perform world's
first head transplant by 2017
YOUR DAILY HEALTH
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