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Call for temporary ban on heritable genome editing in humans

18 March 2019
Appeared in BioNews 991

A group of international experts is calling for a moratorium on the clinical use of germline genome editing in humans.

Led by Professor Eric Lander, director of the Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard, 17 scientists and ethicists from seven countries made the call in the journal Nature. The signatories included CRISPR pioneer Professor Emmanuelle Charpentier at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin, Germany, and leading CRISPR researcher Dr Feng Zhang, also at the Broad Institute.

The group is calling for a temporary, global ban on changing heritable DNA to 'make genetically modified children', and has suggested the establishment of an international governance framework. Nations would 'voluntarily commit' to approving clinical germline editing only if certain conditions were met.

'We want to make sure that countries don't do things secretly, that we declare what we're thinking, discuss it openly, and be prepared for debate and disagreement,' Professor Lander told the Guardian.

'To be clear, our 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,' the group wrote in their commentary. 'It also does not apply to genome editing in human somatic (non-reproductive) cells to treat diseases, for which patients can provide informed consent and the DNA modifications are not heritable.'

The move follows the announced birth of genome-edited twins in December, which was claimed a world first by Dr He Jiankui, then at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China (see BioNews 977 and 978).

The researcher's work has been condemned globally by the scientific community on ethical, moral and safety grounds. China has since drafted new regulations for 'high-risk' biomedical technologies including genome editing, which would require high-level administrative approval (see BioNews 989).

A framework and the need for further discussion on germline genome editing has received widespread global support, though the idea of a moratorium has had a mixed reaction. The US National Institutes of Health gave its endorsement to the proposal in correspondence to Nature, while others disagreed.

'We do not agree that a moratorium is necessarily the best way to navigate this issue. Finding the right governance approach is critical,' said Dr Beth Thompson, head of UK and EU Policy at the Wellcome Trust.

'A moratorium on the clinical use of germline genome editing is neither necessary nor useful,' said Sarah Norcross, director of the Progress Educational Trust (which publishes BioNews). 'We do not think a moratorium would have deterred He Jiankui, who acted secretively and in breach of a clear scientific consensus that germline genome editing should not be used in the clinic.'

Meanwhile, efforts are underway to develop criteria and standards for germline editing. The heads of the US National Academies of Science, US National Academy of Medicine and the Royal Society wrote in Nature that their organisations are now leading an international commission. This will detail the scientific and ethical issues to be considered.

They also welcomed the World Health Organisation's recent decision to convene a worldwide committee of scientific experts to develop a set of international standards (see BioNews 987).

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