“The effort, led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov of Oregon Health and Science University, involved changing the DNA of a large number of one-cell embryos with the gene-editing technique CRISPR, according to people familiar with the scientific results,” the MIT Technology Review said.
But the team behind the work has yet to publish its findings in a scientific journal, and peers said it was too early to judge how successful the results might be.
“The results of this study will be published soon in a scientific journal. Unfortunately we can provide no further information about the work,” Eric Robinson, a spokesman for the OHSU, told the review.
The MIT journal said the experiment appeared to show it was possible to safely and effectively use gene manipulation in embryos to treat hereditary illnesses.
The embryos were only allowed to develop for a few days, the report said.
International experts in the emerging field of gene therapy said it would be hard to assess the results until the Oregon team fully published its findings.
“It’s very difficult to be able to comment on any specifics or the robustness of the science because there is no scientific paper,” said Simon Waddington, Reader in Gene Transfer Technology at University College London.
Scientists in China were the first to carry out gene editing on human embryos in 2015, although with mixed results, the British journal Nature reported.
CRISPR, a revolutionary gene-editing technique, has opened up enormous potential to battle diseases and genetic faults. It involves using molecular “scissors” to remove undesirable elements of gene sequencing and replace them with new DNA elements.
In theory, the technique could also be used to create “designer” babies with specific desirable qualities, such as eye color or strength, and possibly even greater intelligence, a prospect that has sparked a lively ethical debate in the scientific community and beyond.
In December 2015, a group of international scientists and ethicists, including some from China, assembled by the US National Academy of Sciences said it would be irresponsible to use DNA editing tools to alter the genomes of human embryos, eggs, or sperm until safety, ethical and legal issues were resolved.
But in March this year, that academy and the American Medical Academy said in a new report that recent advances in the field “opened up a realistic possibility that deserves serious consideration.”
Scientists in Britain and France have also backed an evaluation of the use of CRISPR on human embryos.