by Keisha Ray, Ph.D.
This week the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) released a report giving their support for altering heritable genes when previously the NAS only supported altering uninheritable genes. Although it gave very special conditions in which altering human eggs, sperm, and embryos would be acceptable, giving their seal of approval to any alteration of the human germline is a revolutionary move for the current and future status of genetic engineering for a few reasons:
- Expanding Clinical Research
Genetic engineering is already practiced for non-heritable genes. Genes that are known to cause chronic and debilitating diseases are the subject of clinical trials all across the world. However, with the advancement of affordable gene editing technology like CRISPR, some bioethicists, physicians, and scientists have changed their stance on what was once seen as an unethical use of genetic engineering—altering genes that could be passed down to offspring. Now the NAS endorses extending the benefits of gene editing to preventing, curing, and treating chronic, deadly, and heritable diseases, when there is no alternative intervention. Changing their ethical stance on gene editing will expand clinical research and change how research funds are allocated. It will give laboratories new avenues in which to pursue cures for diseases that were once thought incurable. Inevitably, there will be also be an increase in lively debate among bioethicists about what the NAS’s new report means for the relationship between science, ethics, and patient care.
- Research Arms-Race
The release of this report, for better or for worse, puts the United States on the same playing field as other countries who have already begun to use gene editing tools to alter the germline, particularly in embryos.
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.