The speed in the rise of a new genome modifying technique has led to a landmark meeting of scientists, lawyers and ethics experts, who gathered to debate the potential of editing human genes. The conference, which took place in Washington over the last three days, has finally reached a verdict: They decided to rule out a ban on modifying human embryos, but cautioned against using them to bring any child to term.
The need for this debate is all down to the massive surge in the use of a new gene-editing technique called Crispr-Cas9, which allows precision changes to be made to the DNA of pretty much any organism. Whilst this in itself is not new, the ease at which Crispr-Cas9 allows this to take place – coupled with its incredible accuracy – has seen the technique spread rapidly into labs around the world during the past two years alone.
It was the speed of this adoption that led to the meeting being organized by national academies from the U.S., U.K., and China, with at least 20 other nations also represented, to try and set down guidelines as to the new tool's use. During the debate, they considered its potential for therapies in adult tissues, the ethics of editing human embryos for research, and also the ethics of then implanting embryos which may have had genetic diseases edited out and bringing them to term.
Whilst the scientists and lawyers agreed that the Crispr-Cas9 could be used on embryos and germline cells – that is sperm and egg cells, also known as sex cells – for researcher purposes (as this could help us to fully understand human development), any clinical use of the technique should be limited to somatic cells, which are not passed on to offspring. They warn that “it would be irresponsible to proceed with any clinical use of germline editing.” The scientists claim that using the editing tool to remove genetic diseases in embryo or germline cells in a clinical setting could then be used to enhance human capabilities or produce “designer” babies with relative ease.
While each nation has their own rules for regulating the degree of genetic editing permitted, the debate also settled on the fact that as the human genome is something which is shared by each and every one of us across the globe, the “international community should strive to establish norms concerning acceptable uses of human germline editing.” This, they hope, will discourage any unacceptable research, and yet at the same time foster an increase in human health research. They also recommend that there should be an ongoing international conference to discuss the advances in this field as they develop.