Industry Body Calls for Gene-Editing Moratorium

Posted: March 13, 2015 at 6:45 am

Gene-editing companies say research on altering the DNA of human reproductive cells is dangerous and unethical.

Officials of a biotechnology industry group have called for a voluntary moratorium on using new DNA-editing techniques to change the genetic characteristics of human embryos in laboratory research.

In an editorial published today by the journal Nature, Edward Lanphier, CEO of the biotechnology company Sangamo Biosciences, and four colleagues write that scientists should agree not to modify the DNA of human reproductive cells because it raises safety and ethical risks including the danger of unpredictable effects on future generations.

New gene-editing techniques, in particular one called CRISPR, have given scientists powerful and useful new ways to swap and change DNA letters inside of living cells for the first time (see Genome Surgery).

Recently, some scientific teams have started to study whether CRISPR would be able to correct disease genes in future generations of peoplefor instance, by repairing genes during in vitro fertilization, or in eggs or sperm. The idea of such germ line modification would be to install healthy versions of genes, which children would be born with.

The emergence of active research around germ-line editing, which is taking place in China, at Harvard University, and at a publicly traded biotechnology company called OvaScience, were described last week by MIT Technology Review (see Engineering the Perfect Baby).

But the idea of using editing technology to improve children is as controversial as it is medically powerful. In their editorial, Lanphier, whose coauthors include Fyodor Urnov, co-developer of a different gene-editing system, raise the concern that such techniques might be exploited for non-therapeutic modifications. That could mean, for instance, changing the physical traits of children.

The availability of technology to carry out genetic engineering in human germ-line cells is driving intense debate in scientific circles and may eventually become a legal issue in the United States and other countries.

The authors call for a cessation of basic research is unusual and likely to be opposed by scientists as an intrusion on the quest for scientific knowledge.

George Church, a professor at Harvard Medical School whose laboratory studies CRISPR and germ-line editing, says a voluntary moratorium would be weak compared with existing regulations that nearly all countries impose on the use of new medical technologies until they are proven safe and effective in animals or human [tests]. Church was referring to rules governing the birth of actual gene-edited children, not basic research.

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Industry Body Calls for Gene-Editing Moratorium

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