US panel endorses human embryo gene editing, with caveats

pharmafile | February 15, 2017 | News story | Research and Development crispr, gene editing 

Gene editing in human embryos has been given the go-ahead by a panel of experts from the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the National Academy of Medicine following an international committee in Washington, DC, but only in very specific circumstances.

With the birth and development of CRISPR gene editing technology over the past four years, rapid and accurate manipulation of the human genome has become possible, and many research institutions are working to investigate the potential benefits this advancement brings.

But the debate over human gene editing has and continues to be a fierce ethical one as select groups of professionals and the public remain apprehensive of the technology for fear that, despite the obvious benefits in preventing serious disease, it would lead to ‘designer babies’ if its focus were to overstep the bounds of healthcare and tread into trivial cosmetics or other enhancements.

A 216-page report from the committee outlined a number of caveats limiting the use of gene editing in human embryos to situations where it is “really the last reasonable option for preventing a serious disease or condition,” such as in children whose parents both suffer from serious inheritable diseases, though these occurrences are rare.

“Heritable germline genome editing trials must be approached with caution, but caution does not mean that they must be prohibited,” the report stated.

Thanks to the actions of pro-life legislators, the US Food and Drugs Administration cannot currently consider any form of germ-line modification – the editing of genes in embryos, sperm or eggs – under amendments to the US Department of Health and Human Services appropriations bill in 2015.

A large worry outlined by the authors of the report was the propensity for a “slippery slope” situation to occur, with the technology’s legitimate medical benefit being difficult to divorce from “less compelling” enhancements, ultimately ruling that gene editing should not be employed if such misuse can’t be guaranteed against.

Eric Lander, head of the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, commented on the arguments outlined in the report: “They have said there is one narrow corner, a tiny fraction of cases, where it might be the right thing to do. What is fascinating is their argument that if we can’t control where it goes from there, we shouldn’t do it at all.”

“They have closed the door to the vast majority of germline applications and left it open for a very small, well-defined subset. That’s not unreasonable in my opinion,” he added.

Matt Fellows

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