Curbing gene editing
International experts release guidelines for changing human embryos’ DNA
Chinese scientist He Jiankui announced he had produced the first gene-edited human babies nearly two years ago. The scientific world has reeled ever since, looking for ways to provide oversight for this controversial sector of science.
Researchers have not perfected techniques to edit the genes of an embryo. The modifications can change the child’s DNA in unintended and harmful ways that can pass down to future generations. “There are a lot of gaps in our knowledge, and further research is needed,” said Kay Davies, a University of Oxford geneticist. She co-chaired an international commission of 18 members from 10 countries that in September released criteria to guide the practice of heritable human genome editing. The group included experts with the U.S. National Academy of Medicine, the National Academy of Sciences, and the U.K. Royal Society.
The panel recommended doctors consider embryonic gene editing only in extremely rare cases when a child could inherit a genetic disease that causes severe suffering or premature death and parents likely can’t have a child who won’t carry the disease. They also suggested physicians should not make edits that change the DNA in unusual ways.
To prevent parents and scientists from seeking to use gene editing purely to enhance children, like increasing intelligence, the group said the technique shouldn’t be available for parents who do not carry a disease-producing genetic mutation.
The committee also suggested developing ways to edit the stem cells that produce human sperm or eggs rather than embryos. That would avoid direct experimentation on early human life, though any genetic changes would still affect a child conceived with edited gametes. The researchers said gamete gene editing could avoid some of the technical challenges of embryo editing.
The panel's report will assist the World Health Organization’s expert advisory committee on human genome editing, which plans to issue guidance on ways to track compliance with the recommendations.
Fyodor Urnov, a gene-editing researcher at the University of California, Berkley, told Science the report confirmed a widespread consensus that little justification exists for editing human embryos because it treats only a few problems: “It is an open secret in the gene-editing community that human reproductive editing is a solution in search of a problem.”
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