Bioethics Blogs

The Human Germline Genome Editing Debate

Charis M Thompson summarizes the recent debate on human germline gene editing and calls for a broader and more inclusive public discussion.


An International Summit on Human Gene Editing, co-hosted by the US National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Medicine, the UK’s Royal Society, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, took place December 1st-3rd, 2015. We speakers were charged with addressing the scientific and ethical challenges posed by the new accurate and accessible genome editing technologies, such as CRISPR/Cas9 applied to human genomes.

The most pressing task of the Summit was to consider whether human germline genome editing should be allowed. Edits to someone’s germline genome are deletions and/or insertions of small segments of DNA in germ cells (eggs and sperm or their precursor cells, pluripotent stem cells, or very early embryos to be used in reproduction). These alterations would be carried into all the cells of a resulting child, and then passed on to future generations through sexual reproduction. Although such edits might cure severe disease in the resultant child, the risk of errors and unintended effects to the child and from spreading genome changes into the gene pool are unknown and, to many, unacceptable. Somatic human gene editing, on the other hand, treats an already existing patient for the disease symptoms she has, raising far fewer concerns.

A range of positions on human germline genome editing emerged over the two and a half days. They fell into “yes” positions, which were in favour of giving the green light to human germline genome editing under the right conditions, and “no” positions, which were against permitting human germline genome editing at this time or ever.

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.