Much going on about heritable genome editing

The first meeting of the International Commission on the Clinical Use of Human Germline Genome Editing was held in Washington, DC on August 13.  This is a US/UK commission convened by the UK Royal Society, the US National Academy of Medicine, and the US National Academy of the Sciences.  Space for in-person attendance at these meetings appears limited, but information is freely accessible on the internet.  For example, the meeting materials and videos from the August 13 can be accessed here, and one can register to be on the Commission’s mailing list at this link. 

It is challenging for anyone with a “day job” whose work is not dedicated to the field of gene editing to try to keep up with developments, so the open access to information is welcome.  The August 13 meeting included numerous basic science discussions as well as some from biotechnology companies seeking to develop gene editing approaches.  As discussed often on this blog and elsewhere, so-called “somatic” gene editing—that is, gene therapy of fully-formed individuals by editing an undesirable gene such as one known to cause disease–appears generally to fall within the existing regime of human research ethics and regulation and pose relatively few unique ethical issues.   The day included industry presentations regarding somatic gene editing, either “in vivo”—involving injecting the gene editor into a person—or “ex vivo”—involving removing cells from a person, editing the cells in the medical lab, then re-injecting the gene-edited cells into the person’s body as a form of treatment.  In neither case is the editing inherited across generations, avoiding the larger issues of manipulating human beings more fundamentally, and, as your present correspondent has consistently argued, unacceptably.

Even for somatic gene editing, however, “getting it right” in the form of editing the genes intended, and only those, and developing approaches to assess and control for longer-term or unintended risks is still a substantial set of tasks, as was described in a presentation by an official from the FDA.

The day also included a presentation from the separate World Health Organization multidisciplinary advisory panel, which held its first meeting in March 2019 with another one having been due this week in Geneva, Switzerland.  At the March meeting, the WHO panel adopted three main recommendations for developing oversight of human genome editing:

  • Establish a structured mechanism for collecting and curating details about proposed and ongoing research;
  • “it would be irresponsible at this time for anyone to proceed with clinical applications [they mean trying to establish a pregnancy or birth] of human germline genome editing”
  • Establish approaches to obtain input from the “broadest possible range of stakeholders” and “explore opportunities for an open, online mechanism for seeking input.”

All that said, the Salk Institute in San Diego is working on a new technique of editing, called SATI (short for intercellular linearized Single homology Arm donor mediated intron-Targeting Integration [say THAT three times fast!], which is expected to be more versatile than the current “preferred” technique called CRISPR-Cas9.  Biologic details between the two differ, but the ethical issues mainly apply to applications, and are therefore the same for both.  But don’t be surprised if you hear about “SATI” for 5-10 minutes in the news sometime.

And scientists at Cornell Medical Center in New York City are trying to gene-edit human sperm to alter the characteristics of children conceived using them.  Pressing ahead with getting ready for the WHO panel’s “clinical applications.”

Mildred Solomon of the Hastings Center has recently added her voice to those pointing out that whether heritable human genome editing should ever be done is not just a matter of weighing benefits vs risks, but involves much more momentous possibilities that should give us pause.  The key graphs:

“Even as [the WHO and US/UK commissions] regroup to produce clearer guidance, however, I sense a shift in the debate. For a very long time, the scientific and bioethical consensus was that we must not do human germ-line modifications—that we should not change gametes and embryos in ways that would be permanent, affecting all future generations. In contrast, somatic modifications, which affect only the person in whom the edits are made, have been mainly uncontroversial.

But that border between germ-line and somatic genome modification is blurring; the zeitgeist feels different. There is a growing sense of inevitability that we will eventually do human germ-line modification and that our only obligation is to wait until it is safe. When that day comes, we may want to make permanent heritable changes to the human species to eradicate otherwise intractable diseases. We should, however, enter this discussion with eyes wide open, considering each application on its own merits and anticipating a wide range of issues that go well beyond safety. Many of these issues are explored in Human Flourishing in an Age of Gene Editing, which will be published by Oxford University Press on August 28, 2019.”

I’m willing to forgive the plug for a book from people at Dr. Solomon’s institution, which is where the editors of the book in question work.  It looks worth checking out.  In the meantime, the US/UK commission has called for “expert evidence” to assist them in the task “to develop a framework for considering technical, scientific, medical, regulatory, and ethical requirements for human germline genome editing, should society conclude such applications are acceptable.”  Follow this link to have a look at their questions.

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