Bioethics News

Summit fails to stop genetic engineering of human embryos

Gene-editing with the four-year-old CRISPR technique is already so promising that a meeting of American, British and Chinese scientists was held in Washington this week to discuss how it should be regulated.

The most controversial item on the agenda was genetic editing of human embryos and germ cells. Chinese scientists have already done this with surplus IVF embryos, although all of them died. Unsurprisingly, the International Summit on Human Gene-Editing declared that it would be “irresponsible to proceed with any clinical use of germline editing” until the risks were better understood. But it failed to endorse even a moratorium on human germline gene-editing, let alone a blanket ban.

Gene-editing has far-reaching uses in basic and pre-clinical research and modification of somatic cells. If embryos or germ cells are edited, it might be possible to avoid severe inherited diseases or to enhance human capabilities.

The summit pointed out that there are many risks, including :

(i) the risks of inaccurate editing (such as off-target mutations) and incomplete editing of the cells of early-stage embryos (mosaicism);

(ii) the difficulty of predicting harmful effects that genetic changes may have under the wide range of circumstances experienced by the human population, including interactions with other genetic variants and with the environment; 

(iii) the obligation to consider implications for both the individual and the future generations who will carry the genetic alterations; 

(iv) the fact that, once introduced into the human population, genetic alterations would be difficult to remove and would not remain within any single community or country;

(v) the possibility that permanent genetic ‘enhancements’ to subsets of the population could exacerbate social inequities or be used coercively; and

(vi) the moral and ethical considerations in purposefully altering human evolution using this technology.

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.