A total of 18 researchers, including two CRISPR* specialists, are calling for a temporary (five-year) ban on creating gene-edited babies.
*”In popular usage, ‘CRISPR’ (pronounced ‘crisper’) is shorthand for ‘CRISPR-Cas9.’ CRISPRs are specialized stretches of DNA. The protein Cas9 (or ‘CRISPR-associated’) is an enzyme that acts like a pair of molecular scissors, capable of cutting strands of DNA.” – LiveScience.com
“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 statement’s co-signers, who come from a total of seven different countries, wrote in the March 14th issue of Nature.
Among the co-signers of the document are CRISPR specialists Feng Zhang from the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard University and Emmanuelle Charpentier from the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens in Berlin.
The proposed ban would last about five years and is proposed in an effort to give the public time to learn and debate about genetic experiments. The temporary delay would also buy time for researchers to further test and improve gene-editing technology.
The moratorium, as it’s been called, would also be voluntary, with each country individually pledging to not allow the creation of gene-edited children. Each country would independently decide how long such a ban would last.
Under the ban, gene editing of sperm, eggs, and embryos would still be permitted for research purposes, but the gene-edited organisms wouldn’t be allowed implantation in a woman’s uterus to establish a pregnancy.
The ban would also allow researchers to continue to use CRISPR/Cas9 and other gene editors to treat genetic diseases in children and adults, as long as any changes made to those individual’s DNA couldn’t be passed on.
If you recognize these provisions, you should.
“Some researchers and ethicists have previously called making gene-edited babies ‘irresponsible.’ A 2017 report commissioned by the U.S. National Academies of Sciences and Medicine (SN: 3/18/17, p. 7), as well as two international conferences on human genome editing in 2015 and 2018 (SN: 12/26/15, p. 12; SN: 12/22/18 & 1/5/19, p. 20), concluded that heritable gene editing is not ready for clinical use and should wait until the technology matures and there is public consensus on allowing it.” – ScienceNews.org
According to bioethicist Alta Charo of the University of Wisconsin–Madison Law School, the major difference between those statements and the new call for a ban is the word “moratorium.”
“In which case, there is no real daylight, only a dictionary, between the authors of the Nature essay and the reports and summit statements made to date,” she says.
Still, the previous admonitions weren’t enough to stop Chinese scientist Jiankui He from editing DNA in embryos that would result in the birth of two baby girls last year. Reportedly, another woman was pregnant with a gene-edited baby at the time of He’s announcement in November. Reports state that other researchers were aware of He’s plans and failed to stop him.
“Given that both conferences declared as irresponsible this kind of experiment, but in fact, it went ahead, says that we needed a little bit more than just clucking at the end of things,” says molecular geneticist Paul Berg of Stanford University School of Medicine to ScienceNews.org. “We needed to say a little bit more and actually call for a moratorium.”
“If everyone is saying it would be irresponsible to do it, then why not be explicit and say it should not be done?” Berg, who helped create the proposal, says, admitting that the new call is mostly a matter of semantics.
Heads of the U.S. National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., the U.S. National Academies of Sciences and Medicine in Washington, D.C., and the Royal Society in London all published individual letters in support of the idea in the same issue of Nature.
Other scientists reportedly say that they support the proposed moratorium but aren’t sure that even a moratorium will stop rogue scientists from copying the actions of He.
A moratorium, or ban, if countries agree to it, would have “the force of moral authority,” even if it doesn’t have any legal weight, Russ Altman, a bioengineer and geneticist at Stanford University, says. “Now a ban will have a bigger weight of scientific credibility, and would be more likely to be obeyed.”
The scientific community awaits the final decision on the proposed moratorium.