Scientists Call for a Moratorium on Genetically Modifying Babies

Last year, a Chinese scientist genetically altered two babies to protect them against HIV, and a group of scientists is now calling for a global moratorium on the practice.

Writing in the science journal, “Nature“, the group consists of 18 respected scientists in the field of genomics and ethics including Eric Lander, Françoise Baylis and Feng Zhang. The researchers begin: “We call for a global moratorium on all clinical uses of human germline editing — that is, changing heritable DNA (in sperm, eggs or embryos) to make genetically modified children.”

The clarify that they in no way mean an indefinite ban but rather a “fixed period during which no clinical uses of germline editing whatsoever are allowed.” This, they say, will give scientists and politicians time to work out an international framework of unequivocal ethical standards. ”Thereafter, nations may choose to follow separate paths,” they say in the paper.

They note that a number of nations do have some legislative frameworks, in the form of outright bans on germline editing or indirect bans, but this next step would allow individual nations to make their own choices regarding germline editing. The intention here is that whether a nation chooses to retain its ban or to proceed with germline editing, it will do so with transparency and clear oversight.

The moratorium would be limited strictly to germline editing. This means that researchers could still perform gene-editing in the lab, so long as it was never intended to be actually used in implanted ovum. It would also still allow gene-editing in adults, as long as those procedures do not allow for changes to be passed on to future generations.

This is at the heart of the controversy: germline editing doesn’t just change one generation but rather has the potential to affect future generations.

With the technology now making such genetic manipulation a possibility the time to act is now, say the scientists.

What led to this call?

The prospect of editing our DNA in a precise way has been on the cards for a couple of decades now, but where once it was a dream, a new tool called CRISPR has given scientists a means of quickly and cheaply alter our DNA. This has meant that gene editing is now not just a possibility but an actual prospect for eradicating diseases.

Of course, just because the technology is there doesn’t mean we have the scientific understanding to use it properly—at least, in a way that minimizes risks—nor do we yet have the ability to regulate this practice.

And we do need to regulate it.

Last year, scientists around the globe decried the news that Chinese researcher He Jiankui had used gene editing in the birth of twin girls, Lulu and Nana. He altered the girls’ DNA in order to reduce their susceptibility to HIV. He appeared mindful of the furor his actions would cause when, in announcing the breakthrough in a YouTube video, he said, “I understand my work will be controversial – but I believe families need this technology and I’m willing to take the criticism for them.”

Professor He did not have the backing of the Chinese state and instead funded and carried out the procedure on his own.

While some scientists cheered his bravery, others said that while they are certainly not against gene editing for concrete reasons such as the reduction of HIV susceptibility, a lone scientist working under their own power is not the proper way to go about grappling with this technology and its ethical questions. While Professor He has been relatively transparent about what he did and why, many scientists are arguing that this sets a bad precedent for shadowy experiments that could have serious health consequences and brings the threat of so-called “designer babies” once again into the picture.

It’s important to note that He’s gene editing company has apparently stood to profit, which is yet another ethical problem.

Not All Scientists Back a Complete Moratorium

The article in “Nature” makes a solid case for why Professor He’s work, if well-intentioned, has serious implications for his patients and for medical ethics.

“Seeking to decrease the children’s risk of acquiring AIDS if exposed to HIV later in life, He attempted to inactivate the gene CCR5, which encodes a receptor that HIV uses to enter cells,” the group writes. “However, this change is not benign: it has been reported to substantially increase the risk of complications, and death, from certain other viral infections, including West Nile virus and influenza. It could have other consequences, too — both positive and negative.”

Not everyone has supported the call for a moratorium, however. Jennifer Doudna of the University of California, one of the inventors of CRISPR gene editing, said that she does not favor a moratorium because He and his colleagues had ignored calls for moratoriums in the past. Instead, she favors regulatory frameworks that would bar germline editing in humans for a specific period of time, until there is scientific and public consensus to concede. Professor Doudna tells the Guardian, “I prefer this to a moratorium which, to me, is of indefinite length and provides no pathway toward possible responsible use,” she said.

Others say that while concerns over bad actors are relevant and rational, it is critical that we put them in perspective. Scientists like He, who ignore moratoriums, will always be a problem. It is critical that scientific bodies find consensus and agree on a direction that allows research into germline editing and gene editing to continue, because it carries with it some of the best hopes we have of eradicating diseases like HIV and various cancers.

Whether the medical community ultimately moves forward with a moratorium or pushes for legislative mechanisms at the national level, it’s clear that a strong body of the scientific community believes that our safeguards need to catch up with our capabilities to ensure that research is safe and transparent.

Photo credit: Getty Images.

37 comments

Emma L
Ellie L27 days ago

thank you

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Chad A
Chad Andersonabout a month ago

Thank you.

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Celine Russo
Celine Russoabout a month ago

On one side you can help eradicating diseases (and help human overpopulation), on the other this can open a path to creating "perfect" humans based on our own selfish wishes (those who can't accept autism and other similar handicaps are going to be happy alright -_-')

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Gene Jacobson
Gene Jabout a month ago

The real problem is we know so little about our incredibly complex structure that it is exceedingly dangerous to modify any part of it as we can't possible know they long term ramifications nor what else may depend on, or be adversely affected by, modifications. Genes do not exist independently of each other, they work together to create a whole. Without a full map, understanding of what all of those connections are, well, it feels to me like the days when we thought DDT was a great idea and there are so many other examples. This seems extremely dangerous to me, despite the good intentions.

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Christine Stewart
Christine Sabout a month ago

modifying one gene almost never just stops one problem, but can cause other problems!

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Ruth S
Ruth Sabout a month ago

Thanks.

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Ruth S
Ruth Sabout a month ago

Going too far for me!

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sue h
sue higginsabout a month ago

It may be a step too far...but is it ? At the moment our future is controlled by 'terminal illnesses ' as a everyday scenario that a few decades ago didn't exist which I personally believe stems from our environment of today, as well as the food that we now eat and passed on through OUR genes to OUR next generation which over time if we carry on in this way can only escalate. As well as the violent world in which we now live in, every parent can now look back to the one that they had and just know that's not gonna be like that for their children's future with worrying concerns and some young people are even refusing to bring children into this world. So maybe this is how we do change our world for the better starting with the babies and their DNA because everyone's child that's born in this generation are OUR future of tomorrow in generations to come and maybe this is where the understanding of peace will come !

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Sophie A
Sarah Aabout a month ago

Thank you for sharing

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Kay B
Kay Babout a month ago

Has potential possibly but there are ethical considerations and so often deviation from the natural order of things carries its own side effects and risks which also may not show up until many years later.

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