Genome editing allows growing of human organs in pigs
British Science Festival told technology’s power has big implications for eugenics
Many ethical questions arise as a result of genome research. Yet it offers much promise in treating disease, delivering safe genetically modified food and even defeating HIV. File photograph: Getty Images
New kinds of crops, human transplant organs grown inside pigs and cures for common diseases are all possible as a result of a new kind of genetic engineering.
So too, are designer babies and the ability to engineer people.
Genome editing is a technology that promises much, but its unprecedented power has implications in terms of eugenics, says Oxford academic and author John Parrington, who delivered a talk on Tuesday at the British Science Festival taking place at Swansea University, Wales.
His most recent book, Redesigning Life: How Genome Editing will Transform the World explores the issues raised by our new-found ability to manipulate the genetic material of any insect, organism or animal, including humans.
Many ethical questions arise as a result of the research, he acknowledges. Yet it offers much promise in treating disease, delivering safe genetically modified food and even defeating HIV.
Researchers found a “new world” blight resistant potato, clipped out the gene that gave it that resistance and then added it to the genome of table potatoes. Perhaps if these had been available at the time of Ireland’s Great Hunger there would have been no potato famine.
The search is on for other resistance genes useful in other important crops so they too take on disease resistance, Prof Parrington said.
This is also being done with pigs at risk from African Swine Fever, a disease endemic in sub-Saharan Africa.
A resistance gene was found in a strain of warthog and this was transferred to commercial pigs to help control the disease.
Replacement donor organs
Modified pigs may also in the future supply humans with replacement donor organs using this technology. Adult pigs can be modified to carry human-compatible organs but it is now also possible to modify fertilised pig embryos so that the pig can carry cell matched replacement organs for transplant into humans.
Two groups in China and the Francis Crick Institute in Britain have conducted experiments on human embryos using genome editing. It represents a “proof of concept” that shows what can be done.
But there is disquiet, Prof Parrington said. “People are cautious about using the technology in this way.”