Fixing a Baby’s Abnormal Genes in the Womb May Soon Be Possible

A couple holds up a picture of their ultrasound.

(Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash)


By now you have probably heard something about CRISPR, the simple and relatively inexpensive method of precisely editing the genomes of plants, animals, and humans.

The treatment of disease in fetuses, the liminal category of life between embryos and humans, poses the next frontier.

Through CRISPR and other methods of gene editing, scientists have produced crops to be more nutritious, better able to resist pests, and tolerate droughts; engineered animals ranging from fruit flies to monkeys to make them better suited for scientific study; and experimentally treated the HIV virus, Hepatitis B, and leukemia in human patients.

There are also currently FDA-approved trials to treat blindness, cancer, and sickle cell disease in humans using gene editing, and there is consensus that CRISPR's therapeutic applications will grow significantly in the coming years.

While the treatment of human disease through use of gene editing is not without its medical and ethical concerns, the avoidance of disease in embryos is far more fraught. Nonetheless, Nature reported in November that He Jiankui, a scientist in China, had edited twin embryos to disable a gene called CCR5 in hopes of avoiding transmission of HIV from their HIV-positive father.

Though there are questions about the effectiveness and necessity of this therapy, He reported that sequencing has proven his embryonic gene edits were successful and the twins were "born normal and healthy," although his claims have not been independently verified.

More recently, Denis Rebrikov, a Russian scientist, announced his plans to disable the same gene in embryos to be implanted in HIV-positive women later this year. Futuristic as it may seem, prenatal gene editing is already here.

The treatment of disease in fetuses, the liminal category of life between embryos and humans, poses the next frontier. Numerous conditions—some minor, some resulting in a lifetime of medical treatment, some incompatible with life outside of the womb—can be diagnosed through use of prenatal diagnostic testing. There is promising research suggesting doctors will soon be able to treat or mitigate at least some of them through use of fetal gene editing.

This research could soon present women carrying genetically anomalous fetuses a third option aside from termination or birthing a child who will likely face a challenging and uncertain medical future: Whether to undergo a fetal genetic intervention.

However, genetic intervention will open the door to a host of ethical considerations, particularly with respect to the relationship between pregnant women and prenatal genetic counselors. Current counselors theoretically provide objective information and answer questions rather than advise their pregnant client whether to continue with her pregnancy, despite the risks, or to have an abortion.

In practice, though, prenatal genetic counseling is most often directive, and the nature of the counseling pregnant women receive can depend on numerous factors, including their religious and cultural beliefs, their perceived ability to handle a complicated pregnancy and subsequent birth, and their financial status. Introducing the possibility of a fetal genetic intervention will exacerbate counselor reliance upon these considerations and in some cases lead to counseling that is even more directive.

Some women in the near future will face the choice of whether to abort, keep, or treat a genetically anomalous fetus.

Future counselors will have to figure out under what circumstances it is even appropriate to broach the subject. Should they only discuss therapies that are FDA-approved, or should they mention experimental treatments? What about interventions that are available in Europe or Asia, but banned in the United States? Or even in the best case of scenario of an FDA-approved treatment, should a counselor make reference to it if she knows for a fact that her client cannot possibly afford it?

Beyond the basic question of what information to share, counselors will have to confront the fact that the very notion of fixing or "editing" offspring will be repugnant to many women, and inherent in the suggestion is the stigmatization of individuals with disabilities. Prenatal genetic counselors will be on the forefront of debates surrounding which fetuses should remain as they are and which ones should be altered.

Despite these concerns, some women in the near future will face the choice of whether to abort, keep, or treat a genetically anomalous fetus in utero. Take, for example, a woman who learns during prenatal testing that her fetus has Angelman syndrome, a genetic disorder characterized by intellectual disability, speech impairment, loss of muscle control, epilepsy, and a small head. There is currently no human treatment for Angelman syndrome, which is caused by a loss of function in a single gene, UBE3A.

But scientists at the University of North Carolina have been able to treat Angelman syndrome in fetal mice by reactivating UBE3A through use of a single injection. The therapy has also proven effective in cultured human brain cells. This suggests that a woman might soon have to consider injecting her fetus's brain with a CRISPR concoction custom-designed to target UBE3A, rather than terminate her pregnancy or bring her fetus to term unaltered.

Assuming she receives the adequate information to make an informed choice, she too will face an ethical conundrum. There will be the inherent risks of injecting anything into a developing fetus's brain, including the possibility of infection, brain damage, and miscarriage. But there are also risks specific to gene editing, such as so-called off-target effects, the possibility of impacting genes other than the intended one. Such effects are highly unpredictable and can be difficult to detect. So too is it impossible to predict how altering UBE3A might lead to other genetic and epigenetic changes once the baby is born.

There are no easy answers to the many questions that will arise in this space.

A woman deciding how to act in this scenario must balance these risks against the potential benefits of the therapy, layered on top of her belief system, resources, and personal ethics. The calculus will be different for every woman, and even the same woman might change her mind from one pregnancy to the next based on the severity of the condition diagnosed and other available medical options.

Her genetic counselor, meanwhile, must be sensitive to all of these concerns in helping her make her decision, keeping up to date on the possible new treatments, and carefully choosing which information to disclose in striving to be neutral. There are no easy answers to the many questions that will arise in this space, but better to start thinking about them now, before it is too late.

Bret Asbury
Bret Asbury is the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and a Professor of Law at the Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law. His current research explores the ethical, social, and psychological impacts that diagnoses of fetal genetic abnormalities can have on pregnant women and their families, and suggests legal and regulatory responses.
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On the one-year anniversary of the global declaration of the pandemic, this virtual event will convene leading scientific and medical experts to discuss the most pressing questions around the COVID-19 vaccines. Planned topics include the effect of the new circulating variants on the vaccines, what we know so far about transmission dynamics post-vaccination, how individuals can behave post-vaccination, the myths of "good" and "bad" vaccines as more alternatives come on board, and more. A public Q&A will follow the expert discussion.

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