Nature has recently carried two new reports of human gene editing. In one, embryos donated from an IVF clinic had a gene critical to very early development altered, to study what happens when you do that, and try to understand early human development more than we now do. In the other, scientists studied editing of an abnormal recessive gene, specifically the one causing a type of blood disorder called thalassemia, by using cloning to create a new embryonic version of an adult with the disease. (This made it technically easier to start in the laboratory with an embryo that has the disease, because it is genetically recessive, meaning that both copies of the gene are abnormal.) This follows earlier publication of similar work to edit dominant mutation-causing genes, in which the embryos arose because of new IVF, done in the lab, by the scientists, using donated eggs fertilized with sperm from a male donor who carried the abnormal gene.
In all three cases, the main biologic approach, and the main ethical issues, are the same. The main differences were which genes were being edited, and how the embryos were obtained.
This prompted Nature to run an editorial to say that it is “time to take stock” of the ethics of this research. Read the editorial here. The key points: This is important work that should be undertaken thoughtfully. Accordingly, donors of any embryos or cells should be fully informed of the planned research. Only as many embryos should be created as are necessary to do the research. Work on embryos should be preceded by work on pluripotent, or “reprogrammed,” stem cells, and if questions can be fully answered by work with those cells, then it may not be necessary to repeat the studies on whole, intact human embryos, and if that is not necessary, perhaps it should not be done. Finally, everything should be peer reviewed.
I agree that editing work in non-totipotent cells should be at all times favored over work on intact embryos, but if one holds that an embryo is a human being that should have the benefits of protections afforded human research subjects, then Nature’s ethical principles are rather thin, little more than an extension of animal use provisions for studies in which early humans are the raw materials for the development of new medical treatments.
Included was a link to the journal’s policies for considering for publication any reports of experimentation on living organisms. Those policies include this paragraph regarding modification of the human germline:
“In deciding whether to publish papers describing modifications of the human germline, we will be guided by safety considerations, compliance with applicable regulations, as well as the status of the societal debate on the implications of such modifications for future generations. We have established an editorial monitoring group to oversee the consideration of these concerns. (The monitoring group includes the Editor-in-Chief of Nature publications, the Nature Editorial Director, the Head of Editorial Policy, Nature Journals and the Executive Editor, Life Sciences.) This group will also seek advice from regulatory experts to ensure that the study was conducted according to the relevant local and national regulations. In this evaluation, we will be strongly guided by the guidance issued by the International Society for Stem Cell Research: Guidelines for the Conduct of Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research (http://www.isscr.org/home/publications/guide-clintrans ).”
I want to be reassured by their invoking “the status of the societal debate on the implications of such modifications for future generations,” but the weaknesses are first, that debate is just not very robust, and “society” is generally in a position of accepting, more or less uncritically, the ongoing technical push; and second, that the ones considering the status of the issues will more or less naturally view them through the relatively narrow researchers’ scope I describe above. To be sure, the goals at a minimum appear to be to ensure that the research is not reckless, that it meets technical standards, that obtaining and creation of embryos is relatively limited in scope, and that nobody, for now, is trying to bring gene-edited embryos to human pregnancy, much less birth. At least, not until the scientists and regulators tell us they think it’s time to try that.