Prof. Ephrat Levy-Lahad, Director of the Medical Genetics Institute at Shaare Zedek Medical Center and co-chair of the National Bio-Ethics Committee (alongside Prof. Avraham Steinberg), was recently appointed to an international committee tasked with examining the possible uses of a new technology – Crisper-Cas9 - in genetic experiments. The committee was assembled by the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS).
Crisper-Cas9, also known as "gene editing", enables creating highly accurate genetic modifications in fetuses and raises the question - to what end should this technology be used. The international committee's members are senior scientists from around the world and its recommendations will appear in a report to be published by NAS. This report is expected to have a significant influence on future uses of this technology.
Last week British scientists received permission from UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to begin using this technology for experimentation on human embryos. The experiments seek to explore the reasons for natural miscarriages and determine what genes are necessary for a fetus to develop into a healthy baby, and will be held within 14 days from fertilization at Francis Crick Institute in London.
"This is a revolutionary technology", explains Prof. Levy-Lahad. "It can be used on human cells but also on the cells of plants and other animals to create genetic changes as well as fix harmful genetic mutations. Clearly this technology has ramifications no just for humans but for the entire environment. It has enormous potential for treating human diseases, particularly hematological illnesses such as Thalassemia and Sickle Cell Anemia where fixing the mutation in the bone marrow's stem cells is expected to cure the disease. On the other hand, using this technology to create genetic changes in humans raises many ethical questions. The purpose of the committee is to outline a way to use it responsibly and ethically".
The Medical Genetics Institute at Shaare Zedek was founded 20 years ago this month. It offers a variety of services, including the PGD Unit that helped bring to life over 500 babies free from genetic diseases, genetic counseling for pregnant women and treatment of adults at risk of genetic cancerous malignancies.