12:00 AM
Mar 30, 2015
 |  BioCentury  |  Politics, Policy & Law

Lines in the sand

Why scientists want Asilomar-type conference on human germline gene editing

Once CRISPR catapulted gene editing to the forefront of DNA-based technology, it was only a matter of time before it would be considered for use in human germline cells. With some researchers calling for restraint on the use of gene editing while ground rules are laid, schisms are already surfacing on whether there's any case to be made for using the technology in human germline cells. But one thing stakeholders agree on is the need for an open discussion, not least to pre-empt public fears and a GMO-type backlash.

The heart of the issue is that, unlike gene editing in somatic cells, changes to chromosomal DNA in eggs or sperm would be carried through to future generations, in effect creating "unnatural" forms of human life.

That raises safety concerns, since the technology is still not fully understood, as well as concerns about the ethics of tinkering with the germline, even to eradicate disease-causing genes.

There's no dispute that because the technology is in its infancy, much more work needs to be done to establish its safety. Stakeholders also agree that no experiments should be done, at least for now, in clinical programs that would involve modifying germline DNA and creating gene-edited embryos.

However, one camp argues that research to understand the technology better and establish its safety in human cells should be permitted under appropriate regulatory controls. That means gene editing would be performed on human germline cells, but that any products would be discarded. Advocates for that position believe it's worth considering whether there are therapeutic situations where using gene editing might be beneficial.

The other school of thought is that there will never be a justifiable use related to human germline cells, and that no experiments should be done for either research or clinical applications. The argument is not just that it's a slippery slope from establishing safety and methods for well-meant therapeutic uses to providing a road map for eugenics.

Rather, the position is that making those modifications crosses a moral line, and that there is no benefit that would outweigh the risk that gene editing could introduce unwanted changes to human genomic DNA. According to this thinking, because no amount of safety testing in animals can assure safety in humans, and because methods such as IVF and genetic screening can eliminate embryos carrying disease mutations, there's no case to be made.

Nevertheless, some question the morality of discarding embryos, and when the first IVF baby was born in 1978, similar concerns were raised about creating "unnatural" forms of life, and about the...

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