Sci­en­tists urge end to crim­i­nal ban on gene-edit­ing sys­tem

National Post (Latest Edition) - - CANADA - Tom Black­well

• 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.

TREVOR ROBB / POST­MEDIA NEWS FILES

Pro­fes­sor Ubaka Og­bogu says Ot­tawa could at least be­gin pub­lic con­sul­ta­tions on the CRISPR gene- edit­ing sys­tem.

Comments

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.