Science

Coalition of scientists and ethicists call for immediate moratorium on human gene editing

Coalition of scientists and et...
Over a dozen influential scientists are presenting a proposal for a temporary moratorium on human gene editing following the controversial announcement last year of the world's first gene edited babies being born in China
Over a dozen influential scientists are presenting a proposal for a temporary moratorium on human gene editing following the controversial announcement last year of the world's first gene edited babies being born in China
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Over a dozen influential scientists are presenting a proposal for a temporary moratorium on human gene editing following the controversial announcement last year of the world's first gene edited babies being born in China
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Over a dozen influential scientists are presenting a proposal for a temporary moratorium on human gene editing following the controversial announcement last year of the world's first gene edited babies being born in China

An international collective of researchers and ethicists is calling for an urgent global moratorium on human germline gene editing, suggesting serious discussions on technical, scientific, medical, societal, ethical and moral issues need to be had before scientists move forward with the controversial technique.

Late last year Chinese scientist He Jiankui took to the stage at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing and permanently changed the world of science with one short presentation. He provided evidence of the first ever gene-edited babies to be born and was pretty quickly condemned by most around the world for violating conventional research safety and ethics.

A newly published editorial in the prestigious journal Nature has presented a case for an immediate international stop on any potential human germline editing for a fixed term while greater global conversations can be had to ascertain how the world of science should move forward. The editorial is co-signed by over a dozen influential scientists from Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Max Planck and Dalhousie University.

The proposal is not a formal treaty, but rather a voluntary pledge designed to allow time for some kind of global coordinating body to be established. The international governmental body could be instituted under the auspices of the World Health Organization, or an entirely new entity, but the authors of this new proposal suggest the implications of gene editing technology could so fundamentally change humanity that it is vitally urgent scientists consider some kind of oversight framework.

The voluntary nature of the proposal has been criticized by some as relatively pointless, especially in light of the fact that many scientists believe current laws and regulations already make it impossible to deploy germline editing in clinical situations. Helen O'Neill, from University College London, suggests the moratorium is essentially irrelevant as it won't stop rogue scientists and will ultimately shed a negative light on the technology in general.

"Currently, there are (as there was in China) legal and ethical measures in place globally which regulate the use of gametes and embryos," says O'Neill. "Let's not forget that He Jiankui broke many rules, and was aware of this by choosing to do his work outside of the auspices of the university (and taking unpaid leave). It was not that he did this because the law allowed it."

The scientists behind this new proposal counter that argument by claiming the moratorium will stimulate an open and transparent conversation which is vital in managing the progress of this new technology.

"… we think that this approach would be effective, because it would encourage nations to com­mit to transparency, to public engagement, to international consultation and to polic­ing behavior within their own borders," the scientists write in their proposal. "It would also provide opportunities for other nations to dissuade a country from proceed­ing with ill­ conceived uses. And it would provide a mechanism for flagging nations that refuse to commit to – or live up to – these self­ imposed obligations."

The proposal is relatively nuanced, specifying allowances for research into germline editing, and only really calling for a prohibition in transferring gene edited embryos into a person's uterus. Gene editing in human somatic cells to treat disease is still allowed. The big concern here is gene editing babies and permanently altering heritable DNA.

"Will it hamper research and use in the clinic? No – the moratorium will not apply to germline editing for research purposes or to the editing of somatic cells," explains Hillary Sheppard, from the University of Auckland. "The call to limit the clinical use of germline editing is proposed for a fixed and limited time of perhaps five years. This is warranted as many technical issues still need to be resolved to allow this method to be safely used in the clinic. In addition, it is still debatable whether there is a sufficient unmet need to warrant its use in the clinic. It is clear that many issues, both technical and ethical, remain to be resolved."

All this conversation may be resolutely hypothetical, with voluntary proposals such as this obviously not functioning to overtly ban types of research. The big important takeaway from the new proposal is the pressing urgency for this debate to happen right now. In an accompanying comment published by the editors of the journal Nature, it is suggested all stakeholders, from governments to universities to journals, need to act now and find a consensus on the issue.

"The right decisions on human germline modification can be reached only through frank and open discussion, followed by swift action," the editors of Nature write. "With so much at stake, that must happen now."

The proposal was published in the journal Nature.

10 comments
guzmanchinky
So if a baby is found to have a genetic disease it can't be fixed before it's born and it has to live with this horrible illness or disability? I think we need to push full speed ahead.
fb36
Not long ago, there was a news about some genetic scientists creating half-human & half-pig embryos! & not long afterwards, there was another news about some genetic scientists creating mice w/ same sex parents! & there was no news of any scientist(s) having ethical concerns about either (AFAIK)! But, now it seems, many scientists have really strong ethical concerns about, genetic tech getting used for permanently curing people from genetic problems! Sorry but I would like to ask: Could the real reason be that, Big Pharma do not want/like, any patients getting cured permanently from lifetime genetic problems (so they always stay as lifetime customers)?
Ralf Biernacki
Why don't they go whole hog, and declare a moratorium on the future? This would let all the distinguished researchers and elder professors rest on their laurels and discuss everything at length, safe from younger "rogue" scientists. This was never really a moral issue---no bona fide scientist ever has let morality affect his grants. This is a turf war between the titled and obsolete, and the bold hungry upstarts.
Wolf0579
Doomed to failure. Why, you ask? Because almost every parent will go to lengths to do what THEY think is best for their child. including breaking the law if need be. Just look at the college enrollment cheating scandal if you doubt what I say. Myself, I have no kids, never married... but if I had the chance to BE one of these modified-to-be-better humans, I'd do it in a heartbeat. I was born skinny with some spinal problems and a sunken chest, that left me as a "beta male". My genes ain't going anywhere, certainly not into the future.
bwana4swahili
"… we think that this approach would be effective, because it would encourage nations to com­mit to transparency, to public engagement, to international consultation and to polic­ing behavior within their own borders," the scientists write in their proposal." Academics love discussion and debate which just means wasted resources, time and money! Get on with the germline editing or lose the race!!
Expanded Viewpoint
I concur with fb36, this just REEKS of Big Pharma (Or is that Pig Pharma?) getting its panties in a knot over the loss of BILLIONS of "dollars" in profits!! Chemical based treatments are all fine and good, so long as they do not result in cures, and if they cause even MORE problems than they solve, man oh man, those are treated like twenty pound gold nuggets or five pound diamonds!! They are guarded and protected to no end! Just look at how there are lawsuits for damages caused by Prilosec, et al, and right after those commercials, we see one for those same proton pump inhibitors!!! WTF is going on there?? Randy
noteugene
I agree with the former critics. Not only does big pharma want to be in charge of everything but this exercise is a waste of time as that it is non enforceable. What have they done with the Chinese baby altering dude? Nothing, and they won't. No need in spending time & money crafting laws unless your going to enforce them. Excersise in futility.
melvin
Does this moratorium also include the manufacture of gene altering chemicals like Teflon and its variations? How about the other few million drugs and chemicals and ionizing radioactives that are creating our monsters, instead of healthy children? Will that stop them, too? NOT!
ljaques
Yes, Big Pharma is likely behind some of this, but I'm just an old fogey and I'm anxious over some bad guys (if not rank and file scientists) dumping genetic mutilations into the wild and taking out the entirety of Mankind. That could be very bad, eh? Anyone editing our own human genes should be extremely careful because we get only one chance at this. I'm disgusted with MonSatan for potentially starving 1/4 of the world if their corn gene goes wild and takes the heirloom corn with it. Many of Mexico's unique corn species are now gone because some jerk threw Round Up Ready seeds into every truck. All it takes is one plant to wipe out the entire species. Yeah, I'm wary about all of these things because too many scientists are NOT ethical and simply do ANYthing to get power, money, and fame. Y'know, kinda like almost all politicians, actors, and sports figures. I'm for the moratorium to save our species, not just a few lives.
emil51
The faster the horizons of gene therapy move apart, the faster a greater number of people will get their unnoticed share of benefits.