Has A Global Gathering Of Scientists Found Common Ground On Gene-Editing The Human Germline?

The study of biology often reveals the beauty of natural design and of natural processes. Certainly this is true of the way that bacteria and other organisms defend themselves against attack from viruses. These studies revealed the exquisite way that some bacteria chop up the DNA of invading organisms and use it to create a memory of the invader, the so-called CRISPR/Cas system, which has been receiving massive public attention in recent weeks. Using CRISPR/Cas, bacteria have evolved an “immune system” that helps protect them from attack in the same way that humans have immune cells that maintain a memory of infectious diseases.

Sometimes though, such elegant discoveries lead to technologies that come with risks. Discovery of the bacterial “immune system” has enabled technology to be developed that can manipulate the genome of other organisms, including humans. Once it was demonstrated that CRISPR/Cas9 could be harnessed, the possibility of genetically modifying the human germline became obvious. Indeed, studies in a variety of experimental organisms have demonstrated the ease of manipulating their germlines using CRISPR/Cas.

For society, gene-editing of the human germline could bring benefits but also risks. Importantly, modifying the human germline, unlike most other methods of treating human disease, has implications for subsequent generations and for the human race as a whole. The realization of these risks to the human race led to the global gathering of scientists, lay people, ethicists, religious leaders, legal experts, patients and patient advocates at the National Academies of Sciences in Washington, DC.

Two key questions were addressed. Whether it would be possible and safe to carry out human germline gene-editing, and whether there were situations in which such gene-editing would be appropriate. The answer to the first question was yes: human germline gene editing is likely —> Read More