Call for halt to human gene editing and designer babies experiments

Powerful gene editing tools could soon face a global regulations on their use on human embryos, sperms or eggs. There have been instances of outrageous use of these powerful tools on modifying the DNA of sperm, eggs or embryos that would go on to become live human beings by rogue and unethical researchers. This call for stricter regulations comes in the wake of such instances.

The leading researchers have said that they wish to put a stop to any such ongoing research and also mandate all nations to register and declare any such experiments being conducted. An international body speculated to be run by the World Health Organisation (WHO) may soon be created to look at all such research activities. They have also said that broad public support would be necessary before any such research could be undertaken.

Eric Lander, founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts in a statement said, “What we want to see are wise and open decisions. We want to make sure that countries don’t do things secretly, that we declare what we’re thinking, discuss it openly, and be prepared for debate and disagreement.” Lander was a co-chairperson of Barack Obama’s council of advisors on science and technology. He is joined by 16 other researchers. The team writes in the latest issue of the journal Nature. Two of the researchers on the team were Emmanuelle Charpentier and Feng Zhang who were also part of the team that created the powerful gene editing tool called the CRISPR/cas9.

3D Rendering Crispr DNA Editing. Image Credit: Nathan Devery / Shutterstock
3D Rendering Crispr DNA Editing. Image Credit: Nathan Devery / Shutterstock

A few months back a Chinese researcher He Jiankui had announced the result of his experiment to rewrite the DNA of twin baby girls’ embryos that made them resistant to HIV. He had disabled the CCR5 gene to provide a natural protection against the virus. The babies Lulu and Nana were born healthy after which the announcement was made. There was a global outrage after the announcement with He being removed from his position at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen. He was criticized for his unethical experiment.

There are a substantial number of experts who believe that tools like CRISPR could help in the treatment of genetic medical conditions such as cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy and some forms of genetic blindness etc. It could be used for “germline editing” of the DNA and also knowledge and screening of the donor eggs, sperms or embryos. However a large number of researchers believe that we know little about the multiple effects of genetic alterations and genetic editing may not be understood as of now as 100 percent safe.

The team writes, “Although techniques have improved in the past several years, germline editing is not yet safe or effective enough to justify any use in the clinic. There is wide agreement in the scientific community that, for clinical germline editing, the risk of failing to make the desired change or of introducing unintended mutations (off-target effects) is still unacceptably high.”

US National Institute of Health has backed this effort and said so in a statement. “We have to make the clearest possible statement that this is a path we are not ready to go down, not now, and potentially not ever,” said NIH director, Francis Collins. In an accompanying letter to Nature, the Royal Society, the US National Academies of Science and the US National Academy of Medicine also said that they had similar concerns regarding gene editing. Collins said, “The Royal Society has been particularly reluctant to go down this path because of a concern that it might in some way slow down research that ultimately could be valuable,” speaking of their reluctance to call for the moratorium. He added, “They risk being seen as self-serving, as scientists who want to do science and don’t want to have others say: ‘No, for now, you shouldn’t’. We have not had the beginnings of a serious discussion about going down this path of modifying our own instruction book. Of all the things that science has made possible in the past several decades that would have massive consequences for humanity, this has to be top of the list.”

Lander added in explanation, “In this case, random bad actors will not ruin the world, the choices that nations make are what’s important. We’re trying to plan the world we’re going to leave for our children. Is it a world where we’re deeply thoughtful about medical applications, and we’re using it in serious cases, or is it a world where we just have rampant commercial competition?”

The researchers write, “We recognize that a moratorium is not without cost. Although each nation might decide to proceed with any particular application, the obligation to explain to the world why it thinks its decision is appropriate will take time and effort. Certainly, the framework we are calling for will place major speed bumps in front of the most adventurous plans to re-engineer the human species. But the risks of the alternative — which include harming patients and eroding public trust — are much worse.”

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.


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