Bioethics News

Human gene editing controversy. Summit concludes with divergent opinions

Despite differences, nearly everyone at the meeting agreed that efforts to use gene editing after birth to correct defects in non-reproductive cells should continue.

When nearly 500 scientists, ethicists, legal experts and advocacy groups from more than 20 countries came together in Washington DC last December to produce guidelines for the use of gene editing in humans, the meeting served as a potent reminder of how far genetic engineering has permeated society.

In 1975, a group of mostly US scientists met at an iconic conference in Asilomar, California, and set stringent guidelines for moving forward with powerful new research tools that enabled the mixing of DNA between species. Forty years later, it took a much more diverse group to reach a much less definitive agreement: a recommendation not to stop human-gene-editing research outright, but to refrain from research and applications that use modified human embryos to establish a pregnancy.

Held on 1–3 December, the International Summit on Human Gene Editing was organized by the US National Academies of Sciences and Medicine, the Royal Society in London and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). The meeting highlighted China’s emerging prominence in genomics; much of the discussion surrounded an April publication by Chinese researchers who used the gene-editing technology CRISPR–Cas9 to modify a gene in non-viable human embryos (P. Liang et al. Protein Cell 6, 363–372; 2015).

A position statement released at the end of the meeting by its organizers did not condemn such experiments. But it said that a host of ethical and safety issues should be resolved before embryos are modified for clinical applications.

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.