Journal Defends Controversial Decision to Publish Study on the Genetic Modification of Human Embryos

Wednesday, 29 April 2015 - 4:48PM
Genetic Engineering
Wednesday, 29 April 2015 - 4:48PM
Journal Defends Controversial Decision to Publish Study on the Genetic Modification of Human Embryos
Last week, a study that detailed scientists' first successful attempt to genetically modify human embryos was published in the journal Protein and Cell, and was immediately met with a huge amount of backlash. Now, the journal has issued a statement defending their decision to publish the paper, claiming that it was made with "extraordinary care, consideration and deliberation," and that rather than endorsing the methods used in the study, they are trying to validate "the concerns that the therapeutic application of these new techniques could have unpredictable safety risks."

In the study, a team of researchers led by Junjiu Huang of the University in Guangzhou, used the gene editing technique CRISPR/Cas9 to modify the gene responsible for β-thalassaemia, a heritable blood disorder that can be deadly, in non-viable embryos. And the attempt was successful, in the sense that most of the embryos' genomes were altered, but many of them experienced unforeseen mutations that would have been devastating had the embryos been viable.

The paper was rejected by both Science and Nature on ethical grounds (although it's unclear exactly what those grounds are) but was ultimately accepted by Protein and Cell amidst vocal protest from the scientific community. In their April 28th response, Protein & Cell managing editor Xiaoxue Zhang insisted that they were not trying to encourage this type of research, but rather were trying to draw attention to the fact that it is not at all ready for clinical practice:

"Because germline modification is permanent and heritable, it should be given the particular concerns...In this unusual situation, the editorial decision to publish this study should not be viewed as an endorsement of this practice nor an encouragement of similar attempts, but rather the sounding of an alarm to draw immediate attention to the urgent need to rein in applications of gene-editing technologies, especially in the human germ cells or embryos."

Many scientists have expressed ethical objections to this study, with a group of geneticists writing in Nature that "heritable human genetic modifications pose serious risks, and the therapeutic benefits are tenuous," and calling for human genetic modification research to halt altogether. Further, the Society for Developmental Biology wrote yesterday that it "supports a voluntary moratorium by members of the scientific community on all manipulation of pre-implantation human embryos by genome editing." 

To be fair, almost every groundbreaking medical advancement in recent history has been met with backlash, including procedures that are now considered to be indispensable, such as organ transplants. But with so many experts and organizations citing concerns about unintended mutations and consequences for future generations, it's at least necessary for this conversation to be taking place.

Via io9.
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