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The ethical and practical debates over using the DNA-editing method CRISPR to alter human embryos just got less hypothetical. A week after the news leaked out, a U.S.-based team has published the first rigorous demonstration that CRISPR can efficiently repair a gene defect in human embryos—one that would cause a potentially deadly heart condition—without introducing new mutations elsewhere. Although none of the labmade embryos were transferred into women, the research team, led by embryologist Shoukhrat Mitalipov of Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) in Portland, says the success paves the way for using the technique in the clinic to prevent the transmission of genetic disease.

To some clinicians, even a slight increase in the healthy IVF embryo pool for certain couples seems justification enough for turning to CRISPR. Even if half of the embryos don’t inherit a mutated gene, those with the healthy gene may bear other abnormalities in older parents, and finding a viable one through screening can be difficult, says James Grifo, a reproductive endocrinologist at New York University’s Langone Medical Center in New York City. “I don’t think we should be alarmist about these possibilities of treating and avoiding disease.”

But earlier this year, a committee convened by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine in Washington, D.C., took a different position: that clinical use of germline editing could be allowed, but only in situations where a couple otherwise has no chance of a healthy biological child. In the new study, “we already have a case that challenges [those] criteria,” says Jeffrey Kahn, a bioethicist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, and a member of the panel. “As these kinds of research findings accumulate … at what point will somebody say it’s time to use this in a clinical context?”

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