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Disturbing Half Human, Half Chicken Embryos Created in Lab

“Sick” and “disturbing” are just two adjectives used by critics of new research that combined human stem cells with chicken embryos for studies on how cells transform into fetuses. Scientists at Rockefeller University are looking for new treatments for developmental disorders. They bypassed state laws restricting this type of experimentation by first growing artificial human embryos from stem cells, and then transplanting them into chicken embryos, The Nation said. What happened next was a shock: In their own words, scientists said the human cells began producing a secondary spinal column and nervous system — “clearly” showing “beautifully organized structures.”

Apparently, there are no bounds to the lengths to which geneticists will go in the search to genetically modify various diseases and developmental disorders out of humans. This chicken-human research was certainly made possible by a decision of the National Academies of Sciences and Medicine in February 2017, which stated that DNA in germline cells such as embryos, eggs and sperm may be altered to eliminate genetic diseases.

In what’s being described as the “holy grail” of genetic engineering, this new road along which synthetic biology is traveling has opened up to gene-editing technology that makes the idea of “designer babies” more real every day. And while the idea of finding a way to keep genetic diseases from occurring may seem good to some, I would venture to say that most who approve of this did not consider the possibility of scientists mixing human DNA with that of animals.

At the heart of this issue is CRISPR, or Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat, a technology that allows scientists to go into your DNA and essentially cut and paste it at specified places. By modifying an enzyme called Cas9, the gene-editing capabilities are significantly improved, in some cases reducing the error rate to "undetectable levels," scientists essentially have opened the door to all kinds of animal-human experimentation. While experts have previously said CRISPR and Cas9 should not be used on human babies, as I said, the National Academies of Sciences and Medicine’s decision changed all that.

The down side from this — if you look beyond the stark reality of a human-chicken combination embryo — is that CRSPR is already showing problems of its own, with researchers discovering numerous unexpected mutations in the resulting genome of CRSPR products. These mutations include 100 additional deletions and insertions, as well as more than 1,500 single-nucleotide mutations. And while some of the mutations are likely benign, each has the potential to lead to serious unintended and unexpected consequences.

I don’t know if the Rockefeller scientists stopped to think about this, but the fact is 40 countries have already banned the genetic engineering of human embryos and 15 of 22 European countries prohibit germ line modification. Perhaps these countries are “on” to something these scientists should consider if they have any ethics: Even though CRISPR provides the means to do so, SHOULD we tinker with the human genome at all? Genetic diseases and defects could be eradicated, and any number of diseases might be cured once they strike; on the other hand, introduced errors might leave a child worse off, or cause unintended generational effects for untold years to come.
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