Chinese scientists have successfully performed surgery on human embryos to remove an inherited disease for the first time. Researchers at Sun Yat-sen University used a base editing technique to re-programme a fault in a single base in our genetic code.

Beta-thalassemia is a global health issue. It is an inherited blood disorder that reduces the production of haemoglobin, leading to a lack of oxygen in many parts of the body. Affected individuals suffer from weakness, fatigue and are at an increased risk of developing abnormal blood clots. The blood disorder is caused by a change to a single base in the genetic code.

The study, published in the journal Protein & Cell [1] describes how the team edited one of the fundamental building blocks of DNA in laboratory-made embryos. Using base editing, they were able to change a guanine nucleobase to an adenine one. The process has been described as ‘chemical surgery’.

The hope is that by correcting this mutation in human embryos the disease may be prevented from being passed onto future generations.

1. Liang P, Ding C, Sun H et al. Protein Cell (2017) 8: 811. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13238-017-0475-6

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