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International commission on genome editing has first meeting

19 August 2019
Appeared in BioNews 1011

The international commission on the Clinical Use of Human Germline Genome Editing met for the first time last week to discuss the governance and use of embryo genome editing.

The meeting, organised by the US's National Academy of Medicine and National Academy of Sciences, and the UK's Royal Society, was held at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington. 

Whilst this is not the first time that experts have met to discuss the use of the CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing technique in human embryos, this is the first occasion where representatives of the scientific and industrial community, regulatory and funding bodies, and patient advocacy groups have come together to develop a framework to govern such experiments. 

Professor Kay Davies at the University of Oxford, and one of the commission's two co-chairs, opened the meeting by stating that it was intended to initiate discussion around the technology, saying that 'the commission has made no conclusions yet, and it would be a mistake for anyone to leave here today thinking otherwise.'  

Prior guidelines around embryo editing, published after the meeting of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine in 2017, were open to ambiguous interpretation. Indeed, the controversial announcement by He Jiankui last year that he had used the technology to edit the genomes of twin baby girls (see BioNews 977) was made more shocking to the scientific community by his claim that he was acting within the recommendations outlined in the 2017 report.

'We can't leave things as they were in 2017,' said Dr Victor Dzau, president of the National Academy of Medicine. 'There are still outstanding questions about what should and should not be done. There needs to be a lot more clarity about the circumstances under which embryo editing would be acceptable.'

Many of the representatives in attendance called for a complete moratorium on germline editing for clinical use at the present time. 'We currently do not, cannot and will not support gene editing in human embryos', said Carrie Wolinetz, acting chief of staff and associate director for science policy at the US National Institutes of Health. 

Sarah Norcross, director of the Progress Educational Trust (the charity which publishes BioNews) addressed the commission, offering an idea of how genome editing could be incorporated into the UK's reproductive regulatory framework in future.

She suggested the technology's use could be regulated by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority: 'Clinics would need a special license to genome edit, and then need another license for each case.'

'An embryo with an edited genome might become a "permitted embryo." It could be used to establish a pregnancy, to avoid "serious disease," or similar wording,' she said.

Whether or not the commission chooses to adopt a full ban remains to be seen - an alternative would be to allow clinical germline editing to proceed but only under strict conditions. 

If this is the case then it is expected that the publication of the commission's report next year will provide a framework outlining exactly when germline editing - that is, altering the genomes of human cells that can be passed on to future generations - might be feasible and appropriate, along with a practical framework regarding preliminary experiments and validations. 

National governments and governing bodies could use this to either establish regulations or prohibit embryo editing entirely. Whether all countries would adopt such practices is not yet known.

The meeting also included a short public comment period, which briefly addressed a range of issues including religious considerations and the commercialisation of embryo editing techniques. 

A second meeting of the commission is anticipated for Spring 2020, along with the publication of their report.

7 September 2020 - by Dr Jennifer Frosch 
Genome editing is not yet safe for creating germline changes in humans, an international commission has concluded...
9 December 2019 - by Dr Patrick Foong 
It's just over a year since Dr He Jiankui's controversial announcement that he had created the world's first genome-edited babies...
25 November 2019 - by Julianna Photopoulos 
Genome-edited babies may be ethically justifiable, highly desirable and less than two years away according to a bioethicist at Abertay University in Dundee...
21 October 2019 - by Dr Barbara Kramarz 
There are numerous reasons why the story of two baby girls, who had been genetically engineered as embryos and consequently equipped with an HIV protective gene variant, startled researchers and the public around the world...
21 October 2019 - by Dr Helen Robertson 
Russian biologist Dr Denis Rebrikov has begun genome editing eggs with the reported objective of learning how deaf couples can have children without the genetic mutation that impairs hearing...
12 August 2019 - by Shaoni Bhattacharya 
China has approved a national research ethics committee to advise its government, following the 'CRISPR-babies' scandal last year...
22 July 2019 - by Georgia Everett 
A resolution to encourage international cooperation in regulating human genome editing has been introduced in the US Senate...
8 July 2019 - by Shaoni Bhattacharya 
A Russian scientist who announced his intention to create genome-edited babies last month, has now revealed details of his plan...
17 June 2019 - by Dr Helen Robertson 
A Russian scientist has announced his intention to produce genome-edited babies...
3 June 2019 - by Georgia Everett 
An international commission has been assembled to provide guidance on the development of therapies using human germline genome editing...
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