Fiddling with the source code of life

Published on Thursday, 23 May 2019 18:59
Written by The Washington Post

When Chinese scientist He Jiankui announced last November his experiments making heritable genetic changes in human embryos followed by live births of twins, alarms went off. What shocked many scientists and others was how He used new technology for gene editing without serious oversight or transparency, amid grave questions about the medical rationale and potential future damage.

One good thing came out of this: He spurred a more deliberate, international effort to answer the hard questions. Now that effort must lead to stricter regulation.

The world is at an inflection point not unlike that which gave rise to the Asimolar Conference on Recombinant DNA in February 1975. That conference considered biohazards and published guidelines on what was then an emerging biotechnology field; these guidelines helped steer significant research for decades. Something of similar scope and power is needed for germline editing of genes in human embryos, sperm and eggs that can create changes to be passed through future generations. The technology of the method CRISPR-Cas9, in which genetic material can be edited quickly and cheaply, was used by He to manipulate an embryo to edit a gene. Ultimately, the amazing CRISPR technology may help conquer certain diseases and alleviate suffering, but it could be used recklessly and immorally.

A commentary in the journal Nature has called for a global, temporary moratorium on clinical uses of human germline editing.

The authors suggest that a goal might be some kind of international research framework.

Genome editing ultimately can affect all humankind, but any regulation must be sensitive to individual nations and societies - not an easy task.

-The Washington Post

Posted in New Britain Herald, Editorials on Thursday, 23 May 2019 18:59. Updated: Thursday, 23 May 2019 19:01.