Sci­en­tists urge mora­to­rium on gene-edited ba­bies

The Buffalo News - - NATIONAL NEWS - By Joel Achen­bach

Sci­en­tists and ethi­cists from seven na­tions on Wed­nes­day called for a mora­to­rium on gene-edit­ing ex­per­i­ments de­signed to al­ter her­i­ta­ble traits in hu­man ba­bies. It’s the lat­est alarm sounded by re­searchers who have been both ex­cited and un­nerved by the pow­er­ful ge­netic en­gi­neer­ing tech­nique known as CRISPR, which can po­ten­tially pre­vent con­gen­i­tal dis­eases but also could lead to per­ma­nent changes in the hu­man species and cre­ate a mar­ket for en­hanced, aug­mented off­spring, some­times called “de­signer ba­bies.”

The call for the mora­to­rium, pub­lished as a com­men­tary in the jour­nal Na­ture, came in di­rect re­sponse to the ac­tions of a Chi­nese re­searcher who, dis­re­gard­ing a global con­sen­sus on the eth­i­cal bound­aries of gene edit­ing, al­tered em­bryos that were im­planted and car­ried to term, re­sult­ing in the live birth of twin ba­bies. The Chi­nese re­searcher, He Jiankui, said his ex­per­i­ment was in­tended to al­ter a gene to make the ba­bies re­sis­tant to in­fec­tion with HIV. He said he knew he would re­ceive crit­i­cism but de­fended it as an eth­i­cal form of gene ther­apy and not some­thing akin to mak­ing cos­metic ge­netic al­ter­ations.

But the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity was out­raged, con­demn­ing He’s ac­tions as “rogue hu­man ex­per­i­men­ta­tion.” The new call for a mora­to­rium is an ac­knowl­edg­ment that the many warn­ings emerg­ing from con­fer­ences on the ethics of gene edit­ing have not been suf­fi­ciently clear and em­phatic, and, in the case of the Chi­nese twins, have failed to pre­vent an eth­i­cal vi­o­la­tion.

The au­thors of the Na­ture pa­per in­clude two of the pri­mary in­ven­tors of the CRISPR sys­tem, Feng Zhang of the Broad In­sti­tute of MIT and Har­vard, and Em­manuelle Char­p­en­tier of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens in Ber­lin. In ad­di­tion to call­ing for a mora­to­rium, the au­thors ar­gue for the cre­ation of an in­ter­na­tional govern­ing body that would over­see the ap­pli­ca­tion of the tech­nol­ogy.

Sep­a­rately on Wed­nes­day, Fran­cis Collins, the di­rec­tor of the Na­tional In­sti­tutes of Health, is­sued a state­ment sup­port­ing the call for a mora­to­rium and a govern­ing body, and in an in­ter­view, he made clear that this is the U.S. gov­ern­ment po­si­tion, dis­cussed and cleared at the high­est lev­els.

“What we’re talk­ing about here is one of the most fun­da­men­tal mo­ments of de­ci­sion about the ap­pli­ca­tion of science to some­thing of enor­mous so­ci­etal con­se­quence. Are we go­ing to cross the line to­ward re­design­ing our­selves?” Collins said.

The new Na­ture pa­per does not call for a per­ma­nent ban on gene edit­ing of her­i­ta­ble traits. It’s a call for a tem­po­rary stop, with no firm ex­pi­ra­tion of the mora­to­rium. It fo­cuses specif­i­cally on ex­per­i­ments in­volv­ing sperm, eggs and em­bryos – also known as germ line cells – that are de­signed to re­sult in preg­nancy. The mora­to­rium would not cover lab­o­ra­tory re­search not in­tended to re­sult in a birth nor gene edit­ing for ther­a­peu­tic pur­poses in a pa­tient’s nongermline cells – called so­matic cells – be­cause those changes wouldn’t be in­her­i­ta­ble.

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