Scientists Call for a Summit on Gene-Edited Babies

Posted: March 20, 2015 at 7:42 pm

Nobel Prize winners raise alarm over genetic engineering of humans.

A group of senior American scientists and ethics experts is calling for debate on the gene-engineering of humans, warning that technology able to change the DNA of future generations is now imminent.

In policy recommendations published today in the journal Science, eighteen researchers, including two Nobel Prize winners, say scientists should accept a self-imposed moratorium on any attempt to create genetically altered children until the safety and medical reasons for such a step can be better understood.

The concern is over a rapidly advancing gene-editing technology, called CRISPR-Cas9, which is giving scientists the ability to easily alter the genome of living cells and animals (see Genome Surgery). The same technology could let scientists correct DNA letters in a human embryo or egg cell, for instance to create children free of certain disease-causing genes, or perhaps with improved genetics.

What we are trying to do is to alert people to the fact that this is now easy, says David Baltimore, a Nobel Prize winner and former president of Caltech, and an author of the letter. We cant use the cover we did previously, which is that it was so difficult that no one was going to do it.

Many countries already ban germ line engineeringor changing genes in a way that would be heritable from one generation to the nextonethical or safety grounds. Others, like the U.S., have strict regulations that would delay the creation of gene-edited children for years, if not decades. But some countries have weak rules, or none at all, and Baltimore said a reason scientists were speaking publicly now was to keep people from doing anything crazy.

The advent of CRISPR is raising social questions of a kind not confronted since the 1970s, when the ability to change DNA in microrganisms was first developed. In a now famous meeting in 1975, in Asilomar, California, researchers agreed to avoid certain kinds of experiments that were then deemed dangerous. Baltimore, who was one of the organizers of the Asilomar meeting, says the scientists behind the letter want to offer similar guidance for gene-engineered babies.

The prospect of genetically modified humans is surprisingly close at hand. A year ago, Chinese researchers created monkeys whose DNA was edited using CRISPR (see 10 Breakthrough Technologies 2014: Genome Editing).

Since then,several teams of researchers in China, the U.S., and the U.K. have begun using CRISPR to change the DNA of human embryos, eggs, and sperm cells, with an eye toward applying the technology at in vitro fertility (IVF) clinics. That laboratory research was described by MIT Technology Review earlier this month (see Engineering the Perfect Baby).

Last week, in Nature, representatives of an industry group, the Alliance for Regenerative Medicine, recommended a wider moratorium that would also include a cessation of such laboratory studies, which it termed dangerous and ethically unacceptable (see Industry Body Calls for Gene-Editing Moratorium).

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Scientists Call for a Summit on Gene-Edited Babies

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