Harvard Scientist Wants To Gene Edit Sperm To Fight Alzheimer's

Less than a week after the widespread condemnation of a Chinese scientist who claims to have produced HIV-resistant twins, a scientist in the US is reportedly set to use gene-editing against another disease.

In the next few weeks, IVF doctor and scientist Werner Neuhausser will begin using the gene-editing tool known as CRISPR to determine whether it's possible to create children with a reduced risk of the disease later in life, reports the MIT Technology Review.

The project, which will happen at Harvard University's Stem Cell Institute using sperm from Boston IVF, will involve editing sperm to change ApoE -- the gene strongly linked to Alzheimer's.

The team will attempt to alter DNA inside sperm cells using a version of CRISPR, called base editing, to turn the risky version of ApoE into a 'less risky' gene.

The project, which will happen at Harvard University's Stem Cell Institute using sperm from Boston IVF, will involve editing sperm to change ApoE. Image: Getty

People born with the high-risk version of the gene have about a 60 percent  risk of getting Alzheimer's in their lifetime.

Its unpublished research is in its earliest stages, and it isn't being undertaken with the intention of actually creating children from the altered sperm.

READ MORE: 'It's Obscene': Researchers Condemned Over Genetically Modified Babies

In this way it greatly differs from last week's scientific bombshell, in which a Chinese scientist claimed to have created the world's first gene-edited babies.

He Jiankui allegedly used the technique known as CRISPR to alter the genes of twin girls to essentially making them resistant to the HIV virus.

If true, it would be the first case in history of genetically modified humans.

The Ethical Debate

Both projects -- though far apart in their stages of application -- are evidence the genome genie is well and truly out of the bottle, and will likely be hard to put back in.

The international backlash to He's work was swift and widespread, sparking a broader conversation around the ethical issues still present with experimental gene-editing technology.

"There is absolutely no way of knowing now what the long term impact [of gene-editing] on the future health of the child is," Professor Robert Sparrow from the Department of Philosophy at Monash Univeristy told 10 daily.

"So when He Jiankui did his experiment you’ve just got to keep your fingers crossed that the genetic alteration was only the one that he intended and that people fully understand the function of that gene."

READ MORE: Gene-Modified Super-Athletes Could Be Here By 2036

CRISPR is a gene-editing tool used to change any chosen letter or letters in an organism's DNA code. Image: Getty

As well as the unknown side-effects of gene-editing -- which would take generations of genetically modified humans to fully understand -- Professor Sparrow explained what the technology could mean on a wider scale if it were  to become common practice.

"There’s the worry about what a future world looks like in which wealthy people have children with radically different disease profiles for instance, then the children of poor people," he said.

It's been a long-held concern in the field that the gap between social classes may widen as a result of the technology due to the price tag which will come with it.

"Some people say 'well we already accept inequality in the child’s life prospects as a result of parental wealth so this is no different' and other people say it's profoundly unfair that what your life looks like depends on who your parents were, so we should not embrace this technology and we should work to provide good healthcare in early life."