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Call for a Moratorium on Human Genome Editing


Scientists and ethicists from seven countries have called for a global moratorium on all clinical uses of human germline editing. The suggested moratorium would not hamper research or editing of non-germline cells, but would set a period that no clinical use of editing sperm, eggs or embryos would be allowed.

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“In the light of the recent CRISPR baby scandal driven by the actions of the Chinese scientist Dr He, this is a wise move. Arguably, this should have been in place a few years ago when it became clear that editing viable embryos was possible. There is no law to prevent germline editing in China although guidelines prohibit it. Therefore, even though many prominent international scientists were aware of Dr He’s work, they were unclear if they should blow the whistle on the rogue scientist, and if so, to whom.

A governance framework around this issue would provide much needed clarity. Would it have prevented Dr He from carrying out his ill-informed experiments? Perhaps not in light of the fact that Dr He allegedly recruited patients using coercion, forged documents and swapped blood samples to achieve his goals – each of these suggest extreme unscrupulous behaviour.

Will it hamper research and use in the clinic? No – the moratorium will not apply to germline editing for research purposes or to the editing of somatic cells.

The call to limit the clinical use of germline editing is proposed for a fixed and limited time of perhaps 5 years. This is warranted as many technical issues still need to be resolved to allow this method to be safely used in the clinic. In addition, it is still debatable whether there is a sufficient unmet need to warrant its use in the clinic. It is clear that many issues, both technical and ethical, remain to be resolved.

One good thing that has emerged from this fiasco is the knowledge that the international scientific community will not tolerate unethical research and that they are actively looking for solutions to prevent it in the future.”

Dr Hilary Sheppard is Senior Lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences at The University of Auckland.

“CRISPR-cas9 technologies are relatively easy to use, and have been shown to be effective in humans. This raises the possibility that germline editing could be commonly used to permanently edit the human genome to manage disease, or to improve human characteristics. This raises challenging ethical and societal issues that must be generally addressed. A moratorium while those discussions proceed is critical.

Problematically, however, most scientists believe that such a moratorium already exists. That gene-edited children have been born in China shows that moratoria are not effective to stop illegitimate behaviour.

The case in China is a salutary one. The scientist involved appears to have broken laws and regulations and behaved at the least unethically, at most illegally. That China has tightened its regulations and sanctioned the scientist is good news; clearly they also recognise the need to think carefully about gene editing in humans.

I hope this moratorium is achieved and effective. Perhaps, however, we should be asking how it is a highly trained, internationally educated scientist could feel that they have the right to ignore international opinion, ethical standards and law.”

Prof Peter Dearden is Director of Genomics Aotearoa, Professor of Genetics at the University of Otago, and Vice President of the Genetics Society of Australasia.

“This is a promising proposal. It puts forward a nuanced rationale for a moratorium on clinical use of heritable genome editing. The agreement would be driven by voluntary and transparent commitments from individual countries, with light-touch oversight from an international body.

The proposal covers not only the technology itself, but also procedures for reporting inappropriate activity. It will also set the tone for how debate on heritable genome editing should proceed: in the public domain, with time for in-depth discussion to identify core values, in consultation with many different groups.

That said, getting this right won’t be simple. Drafting will need to be precise and barriers to quality public engagement will need to be addressed.

We need to have this debate without over-hyping the potential of genome editing or framing its use as inevitable. Genome editing is an exciting and technically dazzling technology, but it remains one very small contributor to the urgent problem of global health equity and opportunity.”

A/Prof Ainsley Newson is from the Sydney School of Public Health at the University of Sydney.

“Clinical use of heritable gene editing would be premature, so a moratorium would be welcome. Ensuring voluntary commitments, and then that they are enforced, is not easy, but not putting anything in place would be a worse outcome.”

Dr Dimitri Perrin is a senior lecturer in the Science and Engineering Faculty at Queensland University of Technology.

“A moratorium on heritable genome editing strikes me as the bare minimum necessary to restore public confidence in the scientific establishment after the revelation that a Chinese scientist had already tried to produce genetically enhanced humans.

It’s far from clear, though, that the voluntary pause the authors are calling for would be effective in preventing similar experiments by scientists who are in thrall to the fantasy of superbabies promoted by transhumanists and by science fiction.”

Prof Robert Sparrow is from the School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies at Monash University.