Experts call for halt to gene editing that results in 'designer babies'

Alicia Farmer
March 15, 2019

Eighteen ethicists and scientists from seven countries urged the worldwide community to halt "all clinical uses of human germline editing - that is, changing heritable DNA (in sperm, eggs or embryos) to make genetically modified children", the statement read in science journal Nature.

Missing from the group of 18, however, was Jennifer Doudna.

The moratorium is needed, they say, largely due to the Chinese scientist who claimed to have made gene edits when creating two AIDS-resistant babies a year ago.

"The majority of scientists around the world believe what this scientist has done is irresponsible and unethical". The researcher, He Jiankui, said he edited the DNA so that the babies would be resistant to HIV.

The letter advises that there should be a fixed period where no germline editing should be allowed. She is a gene-editing pioneer whose work led to the development of CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing technology.

They want a temporary ban of perhaps five years that would allow time for discussion of critical technical, scientific, societal and ethical issues.

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The experiment was denounced by many in the scientific community around the world, some calling it insane and deeming He a "rogue" actor.

It also calls on worldwide cooperation to oversee the use of gene editing technology.

The 18 signatories, each has been involved in the study or application of gene editing, are hoping for the total ban on editing the human germline - sperm, eggs, and embryos - until an worldwide framework has been agreed upon. The proposal does not cover gene-editing experiments that don't involve trying to establish a pregnancy.

"Variants that reduce the risk of some diseases often increase the risk of others", they pointed out. Others included other scientists' failure to stop He despite awareness of his activities; growing interest in human genetic enhancement; interpretation of statements from groups like the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine as weakening the requirement for societal consensus; and no mechanism was created subsequently to ensure global dialog about the appropriateness of clinical germline editing. "Genetic enhancement could even divide humans into subspecies".

The authors call on nations to voluntarily pledge that they will not allow germline editing until certain requirement are met. They reason that previous frameworks haven't or would not work. After that, each country could decide on its own about what to allow, but only after taking steps like providing public notice, joining global discussions about the pros and cons and determining whether its citizens support proceeding with such gene editing. "We are hopeful that this shared interest will result in a judicious framework to address future decisions on whether or how the clinical use of germline editing could be done with the utmost respect for human life".

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