Bioethics Blogs

Of Science, CRISPR-Cas9, and Asilomar

On Thursday, March 19, 2015 Science published (on-line) a Policy Forum entitled  A Prudent Path Forward for Genomic Engineering and Germline Gene Modification.  The piece had 18 authors, including David Baltimore, Paul Berg, Alta Charo, George Church, George Daley, Jennifer Doudna, Ed Penhoet, Keith Yamamoto, and (as, with Alta, one of only two non-scientists and definitely as one of the lesser lights) me. The Policy Forum recommended that steps be taken to “strongly discourage…any attempts at germline genome modification for clinical application in humans, while societal, environmental, and ethical implications of such activity are discussed among scientific and governmental organizations.”

A bit more than forty years earlier, on Monday morning, February 27, 1975, David Baltimore opened the famous Asilomar conference on recombinant DNA. That conference had been called after a letter in Science from the leaders in the field called for a moratorium on recombinant DNA research until important safety issues could be worked out. The three and a half days of the Asilomar meeting produced safety guidelines which led the group to lift their (totally informal and non-binding) moratorium – and ultimately led the NIH Recombinant Activities Committee; to federal (and foreign) biosafety regulations; in some tellings the wildly successful application of recombinant DNA techniques to research and medicine; and, undoubtedly, the most famous story in modern scientific self-regulation. (An excellent, non-speculative, memoir of the Asilomar meeting by George Frederickson, head of the Institute of Medicine at the time of Asilomar and director of NIH a few months later, can be found here.)

The roughly 1400 words of the recent Science Policy Forum include the name “Asilomar” exactly once, in passing, even though two of its signers (and vocal advocates), David Baltimore and Paul Berg, were among the five organizers of the Asilomar meeting.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.