The use of gene editing on human embryos, eggs, and sperm cells is a highly contentious subject. While many argue that it could be used to prevent heritable genetic diseases being passed from parent to child, others see it as the beginning of a much wider move to altering other aspects of the DNA of our species.
Now, in a major new report, two top US institutions have given their tentative support to the science, which until now has been discussed widely but has seen little official endorsement in the United States. Other countries, such as the UK and China, are already conducting research into the gene editing of so-called germ lines, or those cells that eventually give rise to embryos and humans.
Last year, the United Kingdom became one of the first nations to give approval to the editing of human embryos using the genetic tool CRISPR, though there are still tight regulations to control how long these embryos are allowed to develop for, and to prevent them from being implanted into surrogate mothers. Some research groups are now already pushing for this time limit to be extended, in order to allow them to better understand how elements of development occur.
The latest report, compiled by the US National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine, cautiously states that the process should be allowed to go ahead, but only in the case of preventing “serious disease and disability” from being passed on to the next generation, and only if there is no “reasonable alternative.” This would come with a whole raft of safety precautions, and should only be attempted once extensive research has proven the safety and efficacy of the particular procedures.
There has been a lot of debate over the matter of editing human germ cells. Just a year ago a group of international scientists claimed it would be “irresponsible” to allow changes in human DNA that will be passed on, and many are concerned about making such permanent alterations that will not only affect the child, but potentially all of their relatives too.
But with such rapid advancements in the field, opinions need to shift. “Previously, it was easy for people to say, ‘This isn’t possible, so we don’t have to think about it much,’” Richard Hynes, a cancer researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told the New York Times. “Now we can see a path whereby we might be able to do it, so we have to think about how to make sure it’s used only for the right things and not for the wrong things.”
The report makes clear that edits should not be made to enhance any offspring, and all “off label” applications should also be prohibited. How, or more importantly, who should be making and enforcing these regulations is yet to be decided, but it seems that the path to starting such edits in the US has now been opened up.