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Paul Sancya / AP

In the first known U.S. study, scientists have successfully corrected a genetic mutation — one which causes the heart muscle to be unusually thick — in human embryos. The MIT Technology Review first learned of the results last week and called them "a milestone." Down the line, the research could advance to clinical trials in which researchers work with parents to correct mutations in embryos, but that raises the ethical question: If something goes wrong, what do you do?

Why it matters: This was "a cleaner study" and a more successful use of the gene-editing technique CRISPR than we've seen before, bioethicist Jessica Berg told Axios. The researchers, based in Oregon, corrected the genetic mutation in one cell and passed that correction to more embryonic cells, as they began to divide. Past studies carried out in China found errors in some cells after division.

  • One existing option for parents is pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), a method which indicates the presence of genetic mutations in embryos. Researchers who conducted this study say their gene-correcting method could be used in conjunction with PGD in the future to treat embryos. But Jennifer Doudna, one of the creators of CRISPR, says "It may be possible in the not-too-distant future to avoid embryo editing altogether by editing gametes [egg and sperm cells] prior to embryogenesis."
  • Difficult questions will arise at each stage of the research, Berg says. If an embryo is genetically modified, but there is a mistake, to discard it raises questions of abortion. Another ethical question is the idea of "changing progeny," and the implications of that for society, Michael Werner, executive director at the Alliance for Regenerative Medicine, told Axios. And the Oregon scientists only demonstrated that the genetic flaw was successfully corrected to a certain number of divisions. Berg asks, "How much evidence do you need before you can say this really works?"
  • We don't like the word "editing," says Shoukhrat Mitalipov, the study's lead researcher. They prefer "correcting": the study isolated one genetic flaw and fixed it. "It is nowhere near designing babies," Berg says. "[The researchers] weren't saying … 'we wanted a taller baby or a smarter baby' … that was nothing like this."

Go deeper

1 hour ago - Health

FDA authorizes mix-and-match for COVID booster shots

Photo: Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) on Wednesday gave its approval for Americans to get booster shots that are different from the COVID vaccine they initially received.

Why it matters: The recommendation from the FDA, which also authorized booster shots for people who received Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines on Wednesday, paves the way for an expansion of booster shots.

GOP congressman forfeits committee seats after indictment

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry. Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) on Wednesday stepped down from his committee assignments after being indicted for lying to federal investigators amid a probe into illegal campaign donations.

What they're saying: In a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Fortenberry said he is "grateful for the outpouring of support from my friends and colleagues as we work against the injustice confronting me."

Rahm Emanuel questioned on murder of Laquan McDonald in confirmation hearing

Rahm Emanuel during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing on Oct. 20. Photo: Sarah Silbiger/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel spoke about the murder of Laquan McDonald during his Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday to become the U.S. ambassador to Japan, saying that "there's not a day or a week that has gone by in the last seven years I haven't thought about this."

Catch up quick: McDonald was a Black teenager who was fatally shot 16 times by Chicago police during Emanuel's tenure as the city's mayor. The 2014 shooting triggered massive protests, both because of its nature and the fact that the officers' body-cam footage was concealed for years.

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