Shoukhrat Mitalipov, the director at the OHSU Center for Embryonic Cell and Gene Therapy, was the first scientist in the world to successfully edit human embryos.

During his talk at TechfestNW today, Mitalipov acknowledged that his research could be used by private fertility clinics to create "enhanced designer babies."

"It's revolutionary work," Mitalipov said, "and it's controversial. Enhancement gene editing is a concern because the technology we've developed can be used by private fertility clinics. No one controls what they do."

Mitalipov says his team has known from the start that the work they are doing is controversial, and that the research findings, "were startling."

"This type of gene repair was previously thought to be impossible," he says.

The CRISPR technology that Mitalipov invented essentially repairs mutant, disease-causing mitochondria in embryos—which can lead to serious heart defects later in life.

Currently, U.S. Congress has barred the FDA from approving clinical trials that involve genetic engineering. Meaning Mitalipov and his team have had to rely on donations from philanthropic groups and fundraisers to fund their research.

Shoukhrat Mitalipov at TechFestNW (Sam Gehrke)
Shoukhrat Mitalipov at TechFestNW (Sam Gehrke)

Mitalipov notes that the U.S. is still at the forefront of gene research, but if things don't change we may start losing expertise to China and Europe—as those countries are currently investing heavily in genetic research.

"Some of my lab members," Mitalipov said, "when they graduate, have to find a job someplace else because there is no funding here. Many are leaving for Asia."

While Mitalipov's research is currently striding ahead of regulation, he says he hopes clinical applications start to get green-lighted so that attempts at human gene-repairing can be controlled in small, safe settings.

"A mitochondrial [edited] baby was born in Mexico about a year ago," Mitalipov said, "and it was genetically cured. But we would like for the procedure to be tested by experts, not private clinics."