Experts call for halt to gene editing that results in 'designer babies'

15 March, 2019, 21:23 | Author: Sherman Richardson
  • A scientist deposits an embryo into a microplate after injecting it with injecting Cas9 protein and PCSK9 sgRNA in a laboratory in Shenzhen in southern China

A scandal that erupted late a year ago following the announcement of the birth of babies who had been genetically modified has led more than a dozen scientists involved with gene editing to call for an global moratorium on human genetic engineering.

Authors of the note cite several instances leading to their call for the moratorium, including the actions of He Jiankui, a biophysicist in China who reportedly edited embryos to create at least two babies in 2018, according to NPR.

The scientists and ethicists want to halt genetic alterations of "germline cells" - egg or sperm cells - that can then be inherited by others and "could have permanent and possibly harmful effects on the species". Worldwide treaties to ban clinical use of genetic editing except in some extenuating circumstances would be hard to agree to and enforce, the letter states.

CRISPR-Cas9 technology - which combines DNA strands with an enzyme to achieve ultra-precise genome editing - can be used to correct genetic defects in a singe organism, plant or animal. The researcher, He Jiankui, said he edited the DNA so that the babies would be resistant to HIV. It's essentially banned in the US.

"Rather, we call for the establishment of an worldwide framework in which nations - while retaining the right to make their own decisions - voluntarily commit to not approve any use of clinical germline editing unless certain conditions are met".

Such a temporary ban would not, for example, apply to pure research.

"The issue of genetic correction is more complex", the added.

In the beginning, they wrote, there should be a fixed period during which there are no clinical uses of germline editing allowed, while allowing for discussions about the various issues to be considered before permitting it and the establishment of an global framework. Afterward, each country can choose their own regulations.

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The next step would to evaluate all the ramifications - scientific, medical, social, ethical and moral - to determine if the procedure is justified.

Finally, society would need to add its stamp of approval, perhaps through a legislative process or a referendum.

The global moratorium would be in place until nations can devise worldwide principles to guide how the technology should be used, the experts wrote in the journal Nature.

Wholesale endorsement of the proposal is not forthcoming from the wider scientific community. Even more, she believes that his practices were "scientifically and ethically unsound in so many different ways, that they would have been wrong regardless of whether or not they involved germline genome editing".

"There are now just too many unanswered safety, ethical and scientific questions".

Dr. Francis Collins, director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, said in a letter to the journal that the "NIH strongly agrees" that a ban on the practice should go into immediate effect and stay in place until nations can commit to global rules to determine "whether and under what conditions such research should ever proceed".

Other scientists declined to sign the Nature publication, showing a divide in the community over how to best regulate inappropriate uses of gene-editing technology while also encouraging ethical research.

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