Scientists worldwide call for a ban on heritable human gene editing

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  Last updated May 20, 2019 at 11:19 am

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International scientific community propose moratorium on heritable gene editing after recent controversies.



Scientists and ethicists from seven countries have called for a global moratorium on gene editing in humans that would be passed on through the generations.


The statement in Nature follows Chinese scientist He Jiankui’s reported use of gene editing to produce an HIV-resistant baby last year – a move that spurred widespread condemnation from the scientific community.


University of Wollongong and University of Melbourne Professor Robert Kapsa told the AusSMC that the moratorium is important because Dr He’s procedure was “hugely premature” and “highly irresponsible.”


Professor Kapsa said the Chinese researcher “acted with little regard for the two people” born during the experiment, who may now be susceptible to other lifelong diseases, possibly without any benefit since HIV is currently both treatable and preventable by other means.


This sentiment is echoed in the Nature statement, which pointed out the CCR5 mutation Dr He introduced has been reported to increase the risk of complications and death from other viral infections, including West Nile virus and flu.


The suggested moratorium would only be on heritable gene editing, so it would not hamper research or editing of non-heritable cells, but would set a period of around five years that no clinical use of editing sperm, eggs or embryos would be allowed.


After this five-year period, the comment authors suggest individual nations could allow particular applications, but only after rigorous public and international discussion over the pros, cons and appropriateness of each proposed application.


Restoring public trust


Dr Hilary Sheppard from the University of Auckland told the SMC NZ: “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,” she said.


Other researchers told the AusSMC this framework could provide some much-needed clarity and could shape the global discussion on human gene editing.


“Ultimately, society as a whole will decide which applications of gene editing are acceptable, in health as well as in other domains,” said Dr Dimitri Perrin from QUT.


“More than ever, engagement and education around advanced biotechnologies is crucial.”


And while there are many difficult decisions to be made about when, where, and how this framework could be put into place, the proposed bans are seen by many as necessary to restore public trust in the science.


“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,” said Professor Robert Sparrow from Monash University.


Professor Rachel Ankeny from the University of Adelaide agreed: “Involving diverse stakeholders and generating a consensus around ongoing policy in this domain will be extremely difficult, but morally essential.”


The Nature statement signifies a step in the right direction for a balance between public engagement, policy and scientific endeavour.


“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 Sheppard said.


You can read the full AusSMC Expert Reaction here.


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About the Author

Olivia Henry
Olivia Henry is Media Officer at the Australian Science Media Centre. She spends her days nerding out about the latest research in the hopes that journalists will nerd out too. Olivia has Bachelor’s degrees in Biomedical Science and Media (Journalism), and has studied in Japan and Spain. Before joining the AusSMC in 2018, Olivia worked at Fairfax Media, SciWorld, Channel 44 Adelaide and interned at Australia's Science Channel. If you like this super-funky-science-machine, you can catch her talking science on 2CC Canberra or hosting the Night Shift on Radio Adelaide.

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The Australian Science Media Centre (AusSMC) is an independent, not-for-profit service for the news media, giving journalists direct access to evidence-based science and expertise. We aim to better inform public debate on the major issues of the day by improving links between the media and the scientific community. The Centre works with journalists to help them cover science as well as identify the science angles in everyday news stories and works with the scientific community to help them interact more effectively with the media and ensure that their voices are heard on issues of national importance.


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