26 May 2015
Scientists will gather in the USA later this year to produce ethical guidelines on the use of human gene-editing techniques such as CRISPR/Cas9.
Two major not-for-profit US organisations, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the Institute of Medicine (IoM), are planning an international summit in the Autumn as part of an attempt to agree clinical and ethical standards on the future use and development of the technology.
Gene-editing techniques could be used to edit almost any gene and treat genetic conditions, but they raise ethical issues.
Renewed focus on the appropriate use of gene-editing came after Chinese scientists confirmed last month that they used CRISPR/Cas9 to change the DNA of human embryos (see BioNews 799). Prior to this, the technology had only been successfully applied in human adult DNA and mice.
In a joint statement, the presidents of NAS and IoM, Dr Ralph Cicerone and Dr Victor Dzau, confirmed that the focus of the initiative will be 'the scientific underpinnings, clinical, ethical, legal, and social implications of human gene editing.'
They state: 'Recent experiments to attempt to edit human genes have raised important questions about the potential risks and ethical concerns of altering the human germline. Future advances are likely to raise new questions.'
The NAS convened the Asilomar summit in 1975 to debate the use of recombinant DNA in research, giving rise to guidelines and federal regulations on the issue. The NAS committee hopes this meeting can do the same, and will provide scientific communities around the world with 'a comprehensive understanding of human gene editing and its implications.'
Dr Francis S. Collins, director of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) confirmed 'the concept of altering the human germline in embryos for clinical purposes has been debated over many years from many different perspectives, and has been viewed almost universally as a line that should not be crossed.'
Germline modification of human embryos - gene editing which includes changes to gametes that will carry through to future generations - is considered by some to be eugenic. In the USA, it is legal in most states although it cannot be funded by the US Government after the NIH refused to fund such research for ethical reasons (see BioNews 800).
Scientists including co-discoverer of the technique, Professor Jennifer Doudna, have called for a worldwide moratorium on the use of CRISPR/Cas9 in human embryos and germ cells (reported in BioNews 795).
Dr Marcy Darnovsky, director of the Center for Genetics and Society in Berkeley, California has criticised the Asilomar conference model. Speaking to Nature News, she described it as 'an effort at fending off any sort of binding policy in favour of self-regulation.' Instead, Dr Darnovsky wants the scope of discussion on gene-editing technology widened to include politicians, religious groups and human rights organisations.