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An international group of researchers, including some inventors of the popular gene-editing tool Crispr, called for a world-wide moratorium on editing DNA in human sperm, eggs and embryos to prevent births of genetically modified babies.
The group of 18 scientists said in a paper published Wednesday in the journal Nature that a moratorium would prevent irresponsible use of the technology before it causes irreversible changes, especially after a researcher in China announced last November he produced the first genetically modified babies.
The reported births made it clear that “previous statements didn’t go far enough and they could go farther and now is the time to say so,” Eric Lander, one of the lead authors of the paper and president of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, said in an interview.
Yet other scientists refused to join the call, a sign researchers disagree about how best to balance encouraging research into the technology’s potential while deterring irresponsible use.
Opinions even divided some of Crispr’s closest collaborators, while bringing together some rivals. Crispr inventor Jennifer Doudna was among those who didn’t sign the request, though her co-inventor Emmanuelle Charpentier did.
Dr. Doudna, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said she opposes implanting edited embryos in humans for now, but supports research into it. When asked to sign onto the Nature comment, she said she decided against it because, “I feel it is a bit late to be calling for a moratorium.” She also said there were probably more effective ways to stop rogue scientists.
Gene-editing technology and the Crispr tool, in particular, have been racing ahead even as scientists still try to sort out the ethical issues around its use. Discovered in 2012, Crispr allows scientists to cut, edit and insert new DNA. The Broad and a group that includes Dr. Charpentier and UC Berkeley are involved in a legal dispute over the rights to the technology.
Many scientists remain concerned, however, that editing human sperm, eggs or embryos—known as the germline—would make unwanted changes inherited by future generations if used to make babies.
The proposed moratorium wouldn’t stop research on editing human eggs, embryos or sperm, but forbid implanting them, to prevent births with the germline changes.
In their paper, the 18 scientists recommended an initial moratorium period lasting five years to allow time to establish some kind of international framework. Many countries already have laws in place that prevent using germline editing to establish pregnancies, but the scientists suggested that those countries that want to move forward afterward should publicly announce their intentions and wait another two years for further discussion and feedback.
The scientists, including a Crispr inventor at the Broad Institute named Feng Zhang, also recommended the creation of an international panel composed of scientists, patients and others to provide information and advice on various scientific, moral and other issues. The panel would also sponsor public discussions and provide guidance to countries that decide to move forward with the research.
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One point of debate concerning the prospect of a moratorium is that numerous countries, including the U.S., already have policies or rules in place that essentially bar clinical trials involving germline editing anyway.
The scientific community should be focusing more on “how to beef up punishment and surveillance” to insure the technology is used responsibly, George Church, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School and a Crispr inventor, said in an interview.
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In the same edition with the call for a moratorium, Nature published a letter from Carrie Wolinetz and Francis Collins of the National Institutes of Health, supporting the request.
Yet the journal also published a letter from the heads of the U.S. National Academy of Medicine, U.S. National Academy of Sciences and Royal Society in London, who stopped short of supporting a moratorium but expressed support for the concerns prompting the call.
Victor J. Dzau, president of the U.S. National Academy of Medicine, said the use of the word moratorium by the commentary authors prompted debate. “If we use the word, some will say we shouldn’t use it, we should be neutral,” he said in an interview. “But we also believe they are right in saying nothing should be done right now.”
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Dr. Dzau said the academies recently established an international commission that will offer specific criteria that must be met before any clinical trial with germline editing could move forward
The World Health Organization also recently announced the establishment of an expert panel to try to establish global standards and guidelines for human genome editing. It is ultimately up to society to determine if germline editing moves forward, Dr. Dzau said in an interview. The work of the latest commission, he added, is to “responsibly guide the work if society decides it is permissible.”
Write to Amy Dockser Marcus at firstname.lastname@example.org