The World Health Organization (WHO) has begun the process of establishing stricter guidelines for gene editing research. This comes as a response to a Chinese scientist who edited the genes of twin babies.
In India, ethical guidelines already exist preventing unapproved research related to germline genetic engineering or reproductive cloning. Both processes allow for the editing of the genomes of adult human cells, typically involving the editing of genome cells obtained from patients. The process is largely used to develop therapies for blood disorders due to defects in single genes but, to be conducted, it requires approval from an ethics committee.
A “permanent and possibly harmful effect on the species”
“It would be irresponsible for any scientist to conduct human gene-editing studies in people, and a central registry of research plans should be set up to ensure transparency,” WHO experts said following meetings on March 19. The meetings form part of a broader two-day meeting in Geneva to form a panel of gene editing experts to create strict guidelines on what future standards in gene editing research may entail.
The Chinese scientist claims to have used CRISPR gene editing techniques — a process in which DNA fragments can be removed or replaced — for the first time in human embryos. The gene editing later resulted in the birth of twins.
Human gene editing is a matter of contention. On one hand, it offers the potential to rid a genetically altered embryo of genes which may later result in disease. This would effectively make it the ultimate form of preventative medicine. Genes linked to cancer could be removed, as could those those known to cause disability. With these benefits in mind, why, if it could potentially be such a useful tool, is it so hotly debated?
The answer is simple: eugenics. Gene editing offers the possibility to address disease, but could also potentially be used for the creation of so-called “designer babies”. These babies could be gene edited to have any number of desirable qualities the parents may select, from specific eye colours to a certain height.
Top scientists and ethicists from seven countries called for a global moratorium on gene editing of human eggs, sperm or embryos that would result in such genetically-altered babies. They claim the concept “could have permanent and possibly harmful effects on the species”.
The WHO’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, praised the plans of the committee. “Gene editing holds incredible promise for health, but it also poses some risks, both ethically and medically,” he said in a statement. The panel will establish international guidelines over the next two years to ensure that gene-editing remains focused on serving healthcare issues and does not stray into more controversial territory.