Expert scientists are calling for a worldwide freeze on all research into gene editing aimed at sperm, eggs, and embryos for live births. The researchers hope to prevent the use of the technology to yield genetically engineered children, according to The Guardian.
In addition to the call for a moratorium, they’re also asking countries to register and publicly declare any such research proposed by scientists, for consideration by an international entity such as the World Health Organization.
The article was published in the journal Nature, by 17 experts in the field of gene editing, including Emmanuelle Charpentier and Feng Zhang, who both contributed to the discovery of the CRISPR gene editing tool, and Eric Lander, founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, who served on President Barack Obama’s science and technology council.
According to Lander:
“What we want to see are wise and open decisions. We want to make sure that countries don’t do things secretly, that we declare what we’re thinking, discuss it openly, and be prepared for debate and disagreement.”
Four months earlier, a Chinese researcher announced the birth of twins with DNA that was edited in the embryos to give them resistance to HIV. The researcher was fired and widely criticized for violating Chinese regulations, and for carrying out an unethical experiment.
Gene editing enables direct tweaking of the genetic code, with the potential to address the genetic cause of diseases like muscular dystrophy, according to some researchers. In what’s called germline editing, it can also be used to edit the genetic code of embryos, as in the recent Chinese experiment. In that case, the researcher aimed to disable the CCR5 gene, to reproduce the protection from HIV that some of the population has, as a result of a natural mutation.
But most scientists are critical of that approach, and of germline editing in general. In the Chinese case, experts say that the area is not well enough understood to avoid the risk of damaging other genes. And more broadly, researchers argue that germline editing has limited potential anyway, since children with genetic diseases are normally born without the risk known ahead of time. When parents and doctors are aware of the risk, they can opt for other methods like donor eggs or sperm, embryo screening, or adoption.
Some scientists, including CRISPR inventor Jennifer Doudna, said the moratorium went too far, in its indefinite and absolute barring of any research on the method. But the US National Institutes of Health voiced support for the moratorium, with director Francis Collins telling The Guardian:
“We have to make the clearest possible statement that this is a path we are not ready to go down, not now, and potentially not ever.”