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Report: Scientist the first to edit genes of healthy human embryos

A Swedish scientist is believed to be the first in the world to attempt to edit DNA in healthy human embryos, according to an exclusive report from NPR.

The practice is controversial and has been criticized throughout the scientific community over safety and ethical concerns.

But developmental biologist Fredrik Lanner, of the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, says he is trying to edit genes in human embryos to learn more about how the genes regulate early embryonic development​. He hopes his work will lead to new treatments for infertility and ways to prevent miscarriages, as well as one day helping scientists develop new treatments for a variety of diseases, according to the report.

“Having children is one of the major drives for a lot of people,” Lanner told NPR. “For people who do struggle with this, it can tend to become an extremely important part of your life.”

He’s using a gene-editing technique called CRISPR​, which Science magazine declared its 2015 Breakthrough of the Year.

“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 different types of blindness​ and other diseases. That’s another exciting area of research,” Lanner said in the interview.

But many say editing human embryos is a slippery slope that could potentially lead to irreparable damage. One major concern is that if scientists make a mistake while editing DNA in human embryos, it could introduce new diseases into the human gene pool that could be passed down to future generations.

What’s more, it raises ethical concerns about the creation of so-called “designer babies,”​ where parents might pick and choose the traits they want for their children.

Last year, to the dismay of many in the scientific community, Chinese scientists tried to edit DNA using “non-viable” human embryos that had no hope of developing.

“We don’t really understand enough of the genome to be making these types of changes,” Eric Schadt, director of the Icahn Institute for Genomics and Multiscale Biology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, told “CBS This Morning” when the news from China broke last April. “We’re making fundamental changes to the gene pool and we don’t necessarily understand how we adapt to different environmental changes and changes we may make today may not be advantageous 100 years from now.”

Such experiments led the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to launch the Human Gene-Editing Initiative to discuss the complex safety and ethical issues they raise.

The international group convened last year and concluded that it was far too soon to try to create babies from embryos that had their genes edited. However, they decided that basic scientific research – like Lanner’s – could be acceptable. The initiative is expected to issue a final report at the end of this year or early in 2017.

For Lanner, editing embryos to create designer babies not the objective. 

“It’s not a technology that should be taken lightly,” he told NPR. “So I really, of course, stand against any sort of thoughts that one should use this to design designer babies or enhance for aesthetic purposes.”

He also says much more research would be needed before anyone attempts to genetically modify embryos to prevent diseases. Still, he says basic research is necessary to move forward in the field.

“I think it’s wise to be allowed to do fundamental research,” he said, “so we can gain more information about this technology and potentially use it in the future.

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    Ashley Welch covers health and wellness for CBSNews.com