Scientists Wary of Human Genome Editing Consequences

Friday, 20 March 2015 - 11:16AM
Genetic Engineering
Friday, 20 March 2015 - 11:16AM
Scientists Wary of Human Genome Editing Consequences
With technology that holds the power to repair or enhance any human gene, ethics and safety are bound to come into question. This Thursday, a group of leading biologists called for a worldwide prohibition on human use of a new genome-editing technique that would alter human DNA in an inheritable way. "You could exert control over human heredity with this technique, and that is why we are raising the issue," explains David Baltimore, former president of California Institute of Technology.

The ban, known formally as a moratorium, might be a little difficult to enforce. It's not technically legally enforceable, and it would be difficult to exert such a small authority worldwide. The situation in the U.S is more straightforward, as the F.D.A. has to approve anything before it is tested on humans, but it's the countries with lower levels of scientific regulation that the group behind the ban are primarily concerned about. However, there is a precedent. In 1975, scientists worldwide were asked to refrain from using the recombinant DNA technique, a new method for gene manipulation, until more rules had been established. 'We asked at that time that nobody do certain experiments, and in fact nobody did, to my knowledge," said Dr. Baltimore.

The new genome-editing approach that has brought the moratorium to fruition is known as the Crispr-Cas9. It was invented by Jennifer A. Doudna of UC Berkeley and Emmanuelle Charpentier of Umea University, Sweden. Their method takes over the immune system's ability to remember the DNA sequences of viruses it has previously vanquished, allowing the researchers to program the bacteria to attack specific genomes. The concern with this technique stems from the fact that the bacteria can occasionally attack its target DNA in areas other than those intended. It's this lack of total control over the process, as well as a lack of knowledge of what the changes mean in the bigger picture of the human genome, that the researchers like Baltimore want to assess before releasing the technique to the wider scientific community. 

Of course, there is also the ethical debate underlying all human genetic modification. Some researchers have embraced the many ways in which the benefits of such genetic engineering can outweigh the risks, whereas others are more wary of potentially over-engineering such a complex natural process. 

Regardless of where each individual member stands, the International Society for Stem Cell Research supported the proposed moratorium. They called for a public discussion, but are also working to develop some more formal processes, such as an international meeting to establish guidelines for human use of Crispr-Cas9.

Via NY Times
Science
Science News
Genetic Engineering

Load Comments