Scientists urge end to criminal ban on gene-editing system
• It’s one of the most exciting, and controversial, areas of health science today: new technology that can alter the genetic content of cells, potentially preventing inherited disease — or creating genetically enhanced humans.
But Canada is among the few countries in the world where working with the CRISPR gene-editing system on cells whose DNA can be passed down to future generations is a criminal offence, with penalties of up to 10 years in prison.
This week, one major science group announced it wants that changed, calling on the federal government to lift the prohibition and allow researchers to alter the genome of inheritable “germ” cells and embryos.
The potential is huge and the theoretical risks like eugenics or cloning are overplayed, argued a panel of the Stem Cell Network.
The s t ep would be a “game-changer,” said Bartha Knoppers, a health-policy expert at McGill University, in a presentation to the annual Till & McCulloch Meetings of stem-cell and regenerative medicine researchers.
“Our policy has simply shut down discussion (about gene editing),” she said in an interview. “We need to start to talk.”
The group’s focus is a key section of the 13-year-old Assisted Human Reproduction Act that makes it a crime to alter the genome of a cell or embryo that’s capable of being transmitted to descendants.
But as t he panel announced its “consensus statement” on the issue this week, it proved contentious even at the conference, with one delegate warning of a slippery slope.
“I’m completely against any modification of the human genome,” said the unidentified meeting attendee. “If you open this door, you won’t ever be able to close it again.”
If the ban is kept in place, however, Canadian scientists will fall further behind colleagues in other countries, say the experts behind the statement. They argue possible abuses can be prevented with good ethical oversight.
“It’s a human- reproduc- tion law, it was never meant to ban and slow down and restrict research,” said Vardit Ravitsky, a University of Montreal bioethicist who was part of the panel.
“It’s a sort of historical accident … and now our hands are tied.”
The panel also argued for legalizing another remarkable new technology, if it’s proven safe and effective. Mitochondrial replacement therapy — banned in Canada by the same law — uses mito- chondrial DNA of a third person to create an embryo for use in in- vitro fertilization. There is evidence that doing so can all but prevent the passing on of devastating mitochondrial diseases from mothers, but it also means the embryo — and resulting child — is essentially the product of three people’s genes.
The group called as well for permitting researchers to create human embryos solely for research purposes, something now prohibited.
CRISPR is a system that allows scientists to relatively easily and inexpensively edit or alter genes, including those passed on from generation to generation. It is lauded as a having the potential — still unproven — to save or transform lives by preventing the development of i nherited conditions, from Huntington’s disease to sickle cell anemia.
There are fears, as well, that CRISPR could be used to create improved humans who are genetically programmed to have certain facial or other features, or that the editing could have harmful side effects.
Regardless, none of it is happening in Canada, good or bad.
“We’re all talking about what other people have done because we simply cannot do it (in this country),” said Andrea Juriscova, a scientist at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital.
In fact, the Stem Cell Network panel is arguably skirting around the most contentious applications of the technology. It says it is asking the government merely to legalize research for its own sake on embryos and germ cells — those in eggs and sperm — not genetic editing of embryos used to actually get women pregnant.
Such basic, pre- clinical science is important for increasing knowledge and understanding of how genetic disease and embryos develop, said Juriscova.
The group urged Health Canada to at least begin public consultations on their proposals.
Ubaka Ogbogu, a health law and policy professor at the University of Alberta, said it’s possible the change could even be made without actually amending the law. The key section prohibits altering the genome of cells that are “capable” of being transmitted to descendants. Health Canada could simply proclaim that such research is permitted as long as the intention is not to create babies, he argued.
But that idea seemed to be a non- starter, as delegate Nadine Kolas, a Health Canada official, told delegates the government considers all gene-editing research involving inheritable cells to be unlawful under the Act, even if the goal is not to use it in reproducing humans.
Kolas said that it might take a judicial review of the law for it to be interpreted differently.
Professor Ubaka Ogbogu says Ottawa could at least begin public consultations on the CRISPR gene- editing system.