Bioethics Blogs

Why treat gene editing differently in two types of human cells?

A snip here, but not a snip there? DNA image via www.shutterstock.com

At the conclusion of the recent International Summit on Human Gene Editing in Washington, DC, its organizing committee released a much-anticipated statement recommending how human genetic engineering should be regulated. Co-organized by US, UK and Chinese national academies, the summit gathered preeminent researchers, clinicians and ethicists to grapple with how new gene editing technologies – particularly the method known as CRISPR – should be used. As CRISPR-cas9 is refined in the lab, several actual and proposed trials using the technique have raised ethical concerns.

Somewhat surprisingly, the summit statement was generally supportive of human gene editing. It suggested that research into genetic modifications should continue as long as it doesn’t lead to a pregnancy. The statement opposed (for now) clinical use of germline modifications – those are genetic changes that would be in every cell of a resulting baby and be passed on to future generations. The committee, though, approved of clinical use of somatic (body) cell gene therapies that affect only the treated individual, not future offspring.

There is not yet consensus within the gene editing community over what the ethical and legal limits to techniques like CRISPR should be. The statement contributes a reasonably clear position: research into using gene editing to cure diseases should continue. But by saying we should hold off on non-research changes to genes in sperm, eggs and embryos, I’d suggest the ethical distinction they make between modifying body cells and germline cells is tenuous. This leads to inconsistent regulatory standards that risk either underregulating somatic therapies or overregulating germline therapies.

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.