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Canadian scientists call for end to criminal ban on germline genome-editing

13 November 2017
Appeared in BioNews 926

Members of Canada's Stem Cell Network have called for the country to re-examine its laws banning genome editing research on the human germline.

At present in Canada there is a maximum prison sentence of 10 years or a fine of up to CA$500,000 (£300,000) for editing human embryos, or egg or sperm cells.

Canadian policy has been to shut down discussion of germline gene editing, said Stem Cell Network member Professor Bartha Knoppers, director of the Centre of Genomics and Policy at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

'We need to start to talk,' Professor Knoppers said at the Till & McCulloch Meetings, a stem cell and regenerative medicine conference, the National Post reported.

All editing of the human germline – including non-clinical research on human embryos that will not be implanted – has been prohibited in Canada since the Assisted Human Reproduction Act of 2004. It was established in the context of public concerns about cloning research. However, the speakers argued that these concerns have been exaggerated, and are not about basic research.

'It's a human reproduction law, it was never meant to ban and slow down and restrict research,' said Dr Vardit Ravitsky, a bioethicist from the University of Montreal, also at the conference. 'It's a sort of historical accident…and now our hands are tied.'

In a statement earlier this year, Professor Knoppers, Dr Ravitsky and colleagues argued that the Canada's policy must be revisited, due to a shift in public perceptions and the potential applications of the technology.

In the statement, the researchers proposed that non-clinical germline genome editing should be allowed in Canada. They also argued that criminalisation is not a suitable form of regulation for scientific research, and that the justification for the current policy should be re-examined. Lastly, they proposed that possible clinical applications of germline genome editing should be considered with a 'principled and pragmatic approach'.

At the conference, Professor Knoppers encouraged the Canadian government's department of health, Health Canada, to begin public consultations on the proposals.

The latest developments in genome editing will be discussed at the session 'What Next for Genome Editing? Politics and the Public', at the Progress Educational Trust's upcoming public conference 'Crossing Frontiers: Moving the Boundaries of Human Reproduction'.

The conference is taking place in London on Friday 8 December 2017. Full details - including sessions, speakers and how to book your place - can be found here.

End Canada's criminal ban on contentious CRISPR gene-editing research, major science group urges
National Post |  8 November 2017
Human gene editing: revisiting Canadian policy
Regenerative Medicine |  5 January 2017
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