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?

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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...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.