Credit Susan Walsh/Associated Press
By NICHOLAS WADE
An international group of scientists meeting in Washington called on Thursday for what would, in effect, be a moratorium on making inheritable changes to the human genome.
The group said it would be “irresponsible to proceed” until the risks could be better assessed and until there was “broad societal consensus about the appropriateness” of any proposed change. The group also held open the possibility for such work to proceed in the future by saying that as knowledge advances, the issue of making permanent changes to the human genome “should be revisited on a regular basis.”
The meeting was convened by the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, the Institute of Medicine, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society of London. The academies have no regulatory power, but their moral authority on this issue seems very likely to be accepted by scientists in most or all countries. Similar restraints proposed in 1975 on an earlier form of gene manipulation by an international scientific meeting in California were observed by the world’s scientists.
“The overriding question is when, if ever, we will want to use gene editing to change human inheritance,” David Baltimore said in opening the conference this week. The participation of the Chinese Academy of Sciences is a notable achievement for the organizers of the meeting, led by Dr. Baltimore, former president of the California Institute of Technology, given that earlier in the year Chinese scientists seemed to be racing ahead independently toward clinical alterations to the human germline.
The meeting was prompted by a new genetic technique, invented three years ago, that enables DNA to be edited with unprecedented ease and precision. The technique, known as Crispr-Cas9 and now widely accessible, would allow physicians to alter the human germline, which includes the eggs and the sperm, to cure genetic disease or even enhance desirable physical or mental traits.
Unlike gene therapy, an accepted medical technique that alters the body’s ordinary tissues, editorial changes made to the human germline would be inherited by the patient’s children and thus contribute permanent changes to the human gene pool. These, if sufficiently extensive, might, in principle, alter the nature of the human species.
For decades, the ability to make changes that could be inherited in the human genome has been viewed as a fateful decision — but one that could be postponed because there was no safe and efficient way to edit the genome. The Crispr-Cas9 technique has suddenly made it possible to cross this Rubicon, and the long theoretical issue now requires practical decisions.
Some biologists think inheritable alterations to the human genome should be indefinitely prohibited. Others believe the science behind the technology should be pursued as vigorously as possible.
Scientists first raised the issue for public discussion in March this year, calling for an international meeting to recommend appropriate policies.
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