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Basic Editing

Researchers like Columbia University's Dieter Egli are continuing their investigations into whether CRISPR could be applied to edit human embryos, even as debate from He Jiankui's November announcement of the birth of gene-edited twin girls rages on, NPR reports.

NPR adds that Egli is focusing on basic research and is not letting the embryos he is editing develop past a day old. "Right now we are not trying to make babies. None of these cells will go into the womb of a person," Egli tells NPR. In particular, he is investigating whether a gene mutation leading to retinitis pigmentosa, a form of inherited blindness, can be fixed.

Still, NPR notes that Egli's work is not without controversy, especially following He's announcement. "This is really disturbing," says Fyodor Urnov, associate director of the Altius Institute for Biomedical Sciences, tells NPR. "As we've learned from the events in China, it is no longer a hypothetical that somebody will just go ahead and go rogue and do something dangerous, reckless, unethical."

Urnov and others tells NPR there should be a moratorium on editing human embryos as the field works out how to prevent rogue actors. However, others argue basic research is needed, with appropriate regulations.

In December, the US National Academy of Medicine's Victor Dzau, the US National Academy of Sciences' Marcia McNutt, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Chunli Bai called on the research community to develop criteria and standards for germline editing, while the World Health Organization announced it would be setting up an expert panel to discuss the ethical and safety issues of gene editing.