Historic summit green lights embryonic gene editing, with some reservations

The Gene Summit in Washington concluded Wednesday that it is too early for human application of gene editing, but urged the international community to continue discussions over the ethics of the process.

Susan Walsh/AP
Nobel laureate David Baltimore of CalTech speaks to reporters at the National Academy of Sciences international summit on the safety and ethics of human gene editing, in Washington, on Tuesday. Organizers of an international summit say a tool to edit human genes is nowhere near ready to attempt in pregnancy but they're calling for more laboratory research with the revolutionary technology. Editing the human genetic code promises to lead to long sought rules for intractable diseases. But it also could be used to alter human heredity, passing genetic alterations to future generations.

Members of an international summit on the ethics of gene editing gave a symbolic green light to laboratory research involving the alteration of embryos but reiterated that the controversial technology is not yet safe for use during pregnancy.

The scientific and ethical discussion of gene editing gained urgency after Chinese scientists attempted to edit genes in human embryos earlier in the year. Proponents of gene editing see the burgeoning technology as a means to reduce the incidence of disease. Some opponents have raised concerns about the now widely available and relatively inexpensive gene editing tool known as CRISPR to germlines that are deemed heritable could also be used to create so-called designer babies. 

"The conversation is important now to try and deter people from doing it prematurely," developmental geneticist Robin Lovell-Badge of Britain's Francis Crick Institute told the Associated Press.

The Chinese scientists who attempted the gene editing intentionally chose nonviable embryos. They attempted to edit the genes of the embryo to correct a genetic defect, but demonstrated that the current gene editing tools and technique are far from safe for human use. Only a few embryos were corrected and many others had been altered in the wrong places.

Clinical use of gene editing is in the very early stages of development. Some bioscience companies are starting research, like Sangamo Biosciences – which is developing an HIV treatment by using the technology to incorporate HIV-resistant genes into a person's genetic code. Full clinical trials are still years away. 

Opponents of gene editing worry about the possibility of “designer babies,” genetically edited to promote intelligence, athleticism, and attractiveness. There are also ethical concerns over the permanence of the decisions – given the potential for edited genes to be inherited by future descendants.

"It's a radical rupture with past human practices," Marcy Darnovsky of the Center for Genetics and Society told the AP.

Proponents of gene editing say that concerns that the technique could lead to wealthy families being able to produce genetically superior offspring are overblown.

"I'm skeptical about the 'Brave New World' scenario," Dr. George Daley of Boston Children's Hospital told the AP, referring Aldus Huxley's 1932 dystopian novel in which the government implemented a biologically based caste system. Enhancements to intelligence or other positive characteristics would require changes to an unknown amount of genes. 

What both sides agree on is that conversations over the ethics of gene editing should be ongoing.

"As scientific knowledge advances and societal views evolve, the clinical use of germline editing should be revisited on a regular basis," the committee concluded. It urged the international community to "establish norms concerning acceptable uses of human germline editing."

This report includes material from The Associated Press.

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