Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Germline Editing Faces a Speed Bump

By Guy Nolch

Will a moratorium on germline editing simply be sidestepped?

The disturbing revelation late last year that Chinese biophysicist Dr He Jiankui had edited embryos to create at least two babies has led 18 scientists and ethicists from seven countries to call for a moratorium on heritable genome editing (https://go.nature.com/2O3UevL).

The researchers suggest a 5-year halt “during which no clinical uses of germline editing whatsoever are allowed... Thereafter, nations may choose to follow separate paths.” The “proposed moratorium does not apply to germline editing for research uses, provided that these studies do not involve the transfer of an embryo to a person’s uterus. It also does not apply to genome editing in human somatic (non-reproductive) cells to treat diseases.”

While ethical concerns about biomedical technologies such as cloning are widely accepted, the risks of germline editing aren’t well-understood by the public. For example, the authors note that a common variant of the SLC39A8 gene “decreases a person’s risk of developing hypertension and Parkinson’s disease, but increases their risk of developing schizophrenia, Crohn’s disease and obesity”. Hence genetic interventions can be counterproductive.

Furthermore, there are intergenerational consequences when heritable changes are made to the germline, and these may create genetic cocktails that have unanticipated repercussions. “It will be much harder to predict the effects of completely new genetic instructions – let alone how multiple modifications will interact when they co-occur in future generations,” the authors state. “Attempting to reshape the species on the basis of our current state of knowledge would be hubris.”

The researchers say that a moratorium would allow time for individual nations to reach “broad societal consensus” on specific germline editing applications. “The governance model we present would intentionally leave room for nations to take differing approaches and reach different conclusions, informed by their history, culture, values and political systems.” But if different nations approve different germline editing applications, we’ll see different treatments available across the world, opening the way to “germline editing tourism” as couples travel to the foreign countries that permit the specific treatments they seek.

This also raises a slippery slope leading from genetic correction to genetic enhancement. Already bioethicists are arguing about enhancement as a right, but market forces driven by parents wanting their children to succeed – or even just keep up with their enhanced peers – could easily drown out the debate. At what point is this considered “broad societal consensus”?

The case of Dr He also raises the question of how adequately nations can regulate germline editing outside its own public institutions. A red-faced China may have placed He under house arrest, but that may just see privately run programs resurface in other jurisdictions.

There’s also the question of how readily scientists can regulate themselves. In March, this column discussed how US scientists practised “ethics dumping” by collaborating on foreign transplant studies using the organs of executed Chinese prisoners (http://austscience.com/402). Prominent US scientists were also complicit in He’s germline editing endeavours.

Indeed, He’s babies were born only 3 years after the first International Summit on Human Gene Editing issued a statement about appropriate uses of the technology (https://go.nature.com/2erqwpc). It concluded that “it would be irresponsible to proceed with any clinical use … unless and until (i) the relevant safety and efficacy issues have been resolved … and (ii) there is broad societal consensus about the appropriateness of the proposed application”.

The proponents of the moratorium conclude that it will “place major speed bumps in front of the most adventurous plans to re-engineer the human species,” but this seems optimistic given how quickly He ignored the Summit’s statement. The track record of germline editors hardly inspires confidence that they will respect any new limits placed upon them.


Guy Nolch is the Editor and Publisher of Australasian Science.