Gene-editing must wait until safety and ethics catch up

Gene-editing on human reproductive cells on a large scale may be possible, but the ethical and safety issues still outweigh the urgency to put it into practice. That's the decision of members of the Organizing Committee for the International Summit on Human Gene Editing who, after three days debating the potential for genetically tinkering with embryo, sperm, or egg cells from human donors, concluded it would be "irresponsible" to go ahead now.

The conference was an opportunity to put the fast-progressing genetic modification research into a greater context since, as the committee pointed out, "the prospect of human genome editing raises many important scientific, ethical, and societal questions."

While genetic modification and stem-cell research have been progressing for some time, the summit was prompted by a new way of gene editing that has seen rapid acceleration in recent years.

Dubbed CRISPR-Cas9, it's based on a bacterial CRISPR-associated protein-9 nuclease (Cas9) from Streptococcus pyogenes. Compared to existing tools, it's easier to adapt to different experiments, while modification accuracy is also higher.

That's opened the door to wide-scale genetic editing at a much faster pace, but also triggered renewed concerns about the longer-term implications.

The committee concluded that, although promising, it's still too early to allow human reproductive cell editing. For instance, "the safety issues have not yet been adequately explored; the cases of most compelling benefit are limited; and many nations have legislative or regulatory bans on germline modification," the group highlighted.

Still, the potential for somatic cell editing, which would allow for changes not passed on through reproduction to future generations, has "promising and valuable" applications including dealing with cancer and other diseases, the group argued.

To the disappointment of some, though, it's not the door being closed completely on the research. "However, as scientific knowledge advances and societal views evolve, the clinical use of germline editing should be revisited on a regular basis," the group said.

The recommendation is that the three organizations which formulated the summit – the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and U.S. National Academy of Medicine; the Royal Society; and the Chinese Academy of Sciences – put together a committee to assess the different factors on an ongoing basis. Such a committee should include not only scientists, it's suggested, but ethicists, patients, representatives of both industry and faith groups, the public, and policymakers, among others.

SOURCE International Summit on Human Gene Editing