Messing with human genes was a contentious issue even before recent gene editing techniques were discovered (see the movie GATTACA or Margaret Atwood’s novel Oryx and Crake). But a new report issued by the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine have given a very tentative thumbs up to some select forms of gene editing on human embryos—changes that could be passed down to future generations.
In the report called Human Genome Editing: Science, Ethic, and Governance, the senior researchers acknowledge the controversial nature of new gene techniques like CRISPR-Cas9, which can snip out problematic bits of DNA. One of the many concerns with this process is that when used on sperm, eggs or developing embryos, it holds the potential to permanently alter the genetic makeup of any future descendants of the patient—a process called “germline editing.” And that is a line that many researchers and ethicists are hesitant to cross, reports Ian Sample at The Guardian.
The report suggests, however, that gene editing should be considered for human embryos, sperm and eggs in exceptional cases involving certain genetic diseases. But these cases must be conducted with strong oversight and limited to situations when there are no other options.
“We have identified a very strict set of criteria which, if satisfied, could make it permissible to start clinical trials,” Alta Charo, professor of law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and co-chair of the report committee tells Sample.
The study authors suggest that genetic editing to stop embryos from developing genetic maladies like Huntington’s disease or Tay-Sachs should be taken seriously, Amy Harmon at The New York Times reports. This advancement would allow people with these diseases to have children without worrying about passing it on.
“It would be conditions where no other options exist to have a healthy baby,” MIT biology researcher and report committee member Rudolf Jaenisch tells Sample. For now, however, this kind of gene editing is not possible, but likely will be in the near future.
It was just a year ago at an international summit sponsored by the National Academies of Science that a group of international researchers said it would be irresponsible to pursue research of any genetic engineering that could lead to inherited changes in the genome until society thoroughly hashes out the ethics and details of the issue.
But gene editing techniques have advanced so rapidly that there isn’t time to formulate a broad societal consensus, Charo tells Harmon. The issue needs to be addressed now.
“Previously, it was easy for people to say, ‘This isn’t possible, so we don’t have to think about it much,’” MIT cancer researcher Richard Hynes who also served on the report committee, tells Harmon. “Now we can see a path whereby we might be able to do it, so we have to think about how to make sure it’s used only for the right things and not for the wrong things.”
While the report suggests extreme caution in pursuing germline editing, it is supportive of gene editing research into therapies to correct diseases in adult tissues that will not be inherited. That type of gene editing could potentially cure blindness, fix liver and heart problems and lead to a whole new era of medicine. In fact, last November Chinese researchers used CRISPR gene editing for the first time in a patient fighting liver cancer.
While the report committee is adamant that gene editing therapies not be used to enhance people, such as making them smarter, taller or stronger, Marcy Darnovsky head of the genetic watchdog group Center for Genetics and Society tells Rob Stein at NPR that those types of enhancement are no longer in the realm of science fiction.
“I don't think there’s any way to keep that genie in the bottle,” she says. “We're going to be creating a world in which the already privileged and affluent can use these high-tech procedures to make children who either have some biological advantages [or perceived advantages]. And the scenario that plays out is not a pretty one.”
Despite such fears, Eric Lander, who heads the Broad Institute, a biomedical and research facility run by MIT and Harvard says the new report is a good first step. “It's important to be extraordinarily cautious on technologies that could leave a permanent mark on the human population for all generations to come,” he tells Stein. “But it's important to try to help people. I think they’ve been very thoughtful about how you should balance those things.”