Bioethics Blogs

Unheard Publics in the Human Genome Editing Policy Debate

Though the CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing platform is only three years old, universities and industry are racing forward with a range of research projects, including in human embryos. Given the speed of uptake, and the recent approval of non-clinical experiments with embryos in a number of countries, many are wary of this kind of CRISPR research because it could so easily pave the path to high-tech fertility clinics vending eugenic upgrades.

A vast diversity of publics, communities, and stakeholders are deeply concerned about this prospect of heritable human genetic modification. Yet, a  recent comment in JAMA Forum by Eli Adashi seeks to funnel this textured landscape of opinion into a tale of two cities in an international biomedical arms race in which the American research establishment is falling behind.

Adashi frames this battle royale as “Divergent US vs UK Human Embryo Research Policies in light of the HFEA’s decision to license Kathy Niakan’s CRISPR research with viable human embryos. (Her research program has yet to begin. It recently received a second round of ethical approval to use surplus embryos from IVF clinics, but those may take months to secure.)

On one side, Dr. Adashi places a mostly British cohort of pioneers, including two groups of research charities and stem cell researchers that have separately gone on record advocating for clinical research into genetically modifying embryos for human reproduction, once certain thresholds are met. He writes:

Many UK scientists quoted in the lay and professional media welcomed the HFEA decision. Professor Sir Robert Lechler, MB, ChB, PhD, President of the UK Academy of Medical Sciences, offered that “studies such as [that proposed by Dr Niakan], that focus on asking basic questions about human-embryo development, are needed to help answer the many scientific and ethical questions remaining in this field.” Similar sentiments were echoed by other UK-based groups, including the Hinxton Group, an international consortium on stem cells, ethics, and law, the Wellcome Trust, an independent global charitable foundation dedicated to improving health, and the Medical Research Council, a leading funder of medical research.

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.