Scientists urge moratorium on gene-edited babies
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.