London: A new breakthrough in genetics, described as "jaw-dropping" by one Nobel scientist, promises to revolutionise the study and treatment of a range of diseases, from cancer and incurable viruses to inherited genetic disorders such as sickle-cell anaemia and Down syndrome.
The development has created intense excitement among DNA experts around the world who believe the discovery will transform their ability to edit the genomes of all living organisms, including humans.
For the first time, scientists are able to engineer any part of the human genome with extreme precision using a revolutionary new technique called Crispr.
Scientists said that the development means it is now possible to make the most accurate and detailed alterations to any specific position on the DNA of the 23 pairs of human chromosomes without introducing unintended mutations or flaws.
The technique is so accurate that scientists believe it will soon be used in gene-therapy trials on humans to treat incurable viruses such as HIV or currently untreatable genetic disorders such as Huntington's disease.
Craig Mello of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, who shared the 2006 Nobel Prize for medicine for a previous genetic discovery called RNA interference, told the publication that Crispr is really a triumph of basic science and in many ways it's better than RNA interference. It's a tremendous breakthrough with huge implications for molecular genetics.
Mello said that in addition to engineering the genes of plants and animals, which could accelerate the development of GM crops and livestock, the Crispr technique dramatically "lowers the threshold" for carrying out "germline" gene therapy on human IVF embryos.
Some IVF doctors suggested that the new gene-editing technique, which could address many of the safety concerns because of its accuracy, could be used to eliminate genetic diseases from affected families by changing an embryo's DNA before implanting it into the womb.