Conscientious Scientists want a Ban on Editing the Human Genome*
A group of leading biologists have called for worldwide boycott on a new technique for editing genomes that results in DNA being altered in a way that could be inherited by future generations.
While the technique has many benefits, such as curing genetic diseases, it can also be used to enhance qualities like beauty or intelligence – something ethicists believe should not be done.
The biologists are also concerned that the technique is so easy to use that doctors may push ahead with it before it’s clinically safe to do so, they say in a paper on the subject, which was published in the journal Science.
“You could exert control over human heredity with this technique, and that is why we are raising the issue,” said David Baltimore, a former president of the California Institute of Technology, who was one of the scientists behind the paper.
The biologists say they want to continue laboratory research on the technique, which is no way near ready for clinical use.
“It raises the most fundamental of issues about how we are going to view our humanity in the future and whether we are going to take the dramatic step of modifying our own germline and in a sense take control of our genetic destiny, which raises enormous peril for humanity,” said George Q. Daley, a stem cell expert at Boston Children’s Hospital and another member of the group, as quoted by the New York Times.
In 1975, when gene science and medicine was in its infancy, scientists worldwide agreed not to manipulate genes using the so-called recombinant DNA technique.
“We asked at that time that nobody do certain experiments, and in fact nobody did, to my knowledge. So there is a moral authority you can assert from the U.S., and that is what we hope to do,” said Dr. Baltimore, who was a member of the 1975 group.
But while such techniques are tightly regulated in the US and Europe, the biologists are concerned about countries where regulation is much more lax.
Though new method of recombinant DNA editing is known by the acronym Crispr-Cas9, and although highly efficient there is a risk that the genome can be cut at unintended sites. This issue is something that Jennifer Doudna, who invented the genome-editing approach, wants to see thoroughly researched before anything is done to a human. So-far the technique has been successfully used in mice rats and monkeys.
“We worry about people making changes without the knowledge of what those changes mean in terms of the overall genome. I personally think we are just not smart enough — and won’t be for a very long time — to feel comfortable about the consequences of changing heredity, even in a single individual,” Dr. Baltimore said.
The idea of gene therapy has already been accepted by ethicists, but this dies with the patient and is not passed on to future generations.
In February the British parliament passed the transfer of mitochondria, small DNA-containing organelles to human eggs, but this technique is less far-reaching than gene editing.
The UK became the first person to legalize three-person babies on February 3, where DNA is from two women and one man. Critics said the technique raises too many ethical and safety concerns but proponents said it was “good news for progressive medicine.”