Human Gene Editing: Half Speed Ahead?

A 3-day international conference on human gene editing has ended, with the conferees reportedly having issued a statement declaring it would be “irresponsible” to try to initiate a human pregnancy with an embryo that had some genes edited by modern techniques, much less create a human embryo using sperm or an egg that had been gene-edited.  In the latter case, the changes would be heritable, with unpredictable near- or longer-term safety, not to mention unknown implications for how the changes would ultimately spread in the population.

However, the conferees appear to have endorsed continued basic research into the editing of genes in the human germline.  I say “appear,” because I have not been able yet to locate the actual text of the statement, only a description in the general press.  One such discussion is here.  The conferees are said to hold that human germline gene editing should not be undertaken until, essentially, society is more comfortable with it.  But again, that characterization is second-hand.

The technique, referred to by the shorthand CRISPR/Cas9, is new, and already widely used in biology.  It is briefly described in general terms, with a nifty associated video, here.

I think that human germline gene editing should not be done, even if believed “safe,” because of the possibility for unintended consequences, the permanence of the change, the potential for a free-for-all underwritten by reproductive freedom arguments, the converse potential for government or societally mandated edits (a la Gattaca), and the “Abolition of Man” argument, echoed, as I understand it, by some European thinkers, that embarking on heritable human edits essentially makes at least some people into engineering projects.  The merits and weaknesses of these concerns are similar to those related to any other cutting-edge technology.  In that spirit, this week’s conferees no doubt see themselves as recapitulating the largely successful work of the 1975 Asilomar conference on recombinant DNA.  This time, however, the project seems so much bigger…

One concern is the efficiency and accuracy of the CRISPR technique.  It’s not to the point where this week’s conferees would endorse using it for human babies, but it’s getting better, as also reported this week.

For related information see these [email protected] posts, plus link-throughs, from earlier in 2015:  April 30, May 8, May 14, July 30, August 13.  The last of these mentions the notion of “gene drive,” a technique to force a genetic change throughout the entire population of a species.  That is under serious consideration for mosquitoes, to make them incapable of spreading malaria.

Skittish though I may be, I bet (heritably) gene-edited humans will be a reality—and not only to treat or eliminate serious inherited disease—perhaps before the last of the U.S. “baby boom” generation has died.  Today, only God knows where it will lead.

Leave a Reply

Please Login to comment
Notify of