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NIH 'will not fund gene editing of human embryos'

5 May 2015
Appeared in BioNews 800

The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) has issued a firm statement that it will not fund any research involving gene-editing technologies in human embryos. The announcement follows the highly contentious publication of a paper in the journal Protein & Cell describing the first use of the CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing technique in human embryos (see BioNews 799).

The NIH provides $30 billion of federal funding for basic and clinical research in the United States. Its director, Francis S Collins, said: 'NIH will not fund any use of gene-editing technologies in human embryos. 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.'

In his statement, Collins acknowledged the value of new gene-editing techniques like CRISPR/Cas9, noting they have shortened the time it takes to produce mouse models of disease, and are also being used to develop the next generation of antimicrobials. Last year, the first clinical application of gene editing resulted in the creation of HIV resistance in human immune cells (see BioNews 764). Collins said that NIH funding for such work, which does not involve human embryos, would continue.

'Advances in technology have given us an elegant new way of carrying out genome editing,' Collins writes. However, he warns that there are strong arguments against using them in human embryos, including major uncertainty over safety as well as ethical issues over editing the germline in a way that will affect future generations. Collins added that there is also a 'current lack of compelling medical applications justifying the use of CRISPR/Cas9 in embryos'.

In March, scientists writing in Nature and Science, called for a moratorium on the use of gene-editing techniques in human embryos (see BioNews 795). Although there is a broad consensus that there should be no clinical applications, some scientists argue that basic research on gene-editing research should go ahead (see BioNews 799).

In his statement, Collins also pointed out that there are already a number of laws and regulations in the US prohibiting the practice. The Dickey-Wicker amendment says that no federal funds can be used for research on human embryos, while the NIH's own guidelines state that they 'will not at present entertain proposals for germ line alteration'. The US Food and Drug Administration would also have to approve the use of any clinical application of gene-editing technology.

However, in several states it is possible for private firms to carry out this controversial research. MIT Technology Review says that is aware of one US firm that is currently testing CRISPR/Cas9 on human embryos.

Meanwhile, Protein & Cell has come under fire since publishing the work. It rejected accusations that the paper was not adequately peer-reviewed, and managing editor Xiaoxue Zhang wrote: 'The editorial decision to publish this study should not be viewed as an endorsement of this practice... but rather the sounding of an alarm to draw attention to the urgent need to rein in applications of gene-editing technologies, especially in the human germ cells or embryos.'

Journal responds to controversy over embryo gene-editing paper
Science |  28 April 2015
NIH Declares It Will Not Fund Studies of Gene Editing in Human Embryos
Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News |  29 April 2015
NIH reiterates ban on editing human embryo DNA
Nature News |  29 April 2015
Statement on NIH funding of research using gene-editing technologies in human embryos
US National Institutes of Health (statement from director) |  29 April 2015
Urgency to rein in the gene-editing technology
Protein & Cell |  28 April 2015
US 'will not fund research for modifying embryo DNA'
BBC News |  30 April 2015
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