Scientists back temporary global ban on gene-edited babies

Henrietta Strickland
March 15, 2019

A group of 18 scientists have called for an global moratorium on editing sperm, egg, or embryo DNA to create genetically modified children, outlining their argument in a paper published by Nature Wednesday.

However, one name is noticeably missing from the signatories: Jennifer Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley. Other gene-editing technologies include zinc finger nucleases, or ZFNs, and transcription activator-like effector nucleases, or TALENs.

The next step would to evaluate all the ramifications - scientific, medical, social, ethical and moral - to determine if the procedure is justified. On top of that, she and others in the scientific community warned that splicing and editing sperm and egg cell DNA could have unintended consequences because the technology and science is so new.

Authors of the note cite several instances leading to their call for the moratorium, including the actions of He Jiankui, a biophysicist in China who reportedly edited embryos to create at least two babies in 2018, according to NPR. The twins were the first ever known, genetically modified babies born into the world.

Indeed, scientists reacted differently to the proposal.

At the time, Doudna told Bloomberg she was "horrified" and disappointed in the way He used the technology, saying it was inappropriate and not medically necessary.

"To begin with, there should be a fixed period during which no clinical uses of germline editing whatsoever are allowed", the open letter read.

Keeping the technology in check would also provide breathing space allowing global guidelines to be established, it is claimed.

To clarify, the group said they do not seek a ban on research using human sperm, eggs, and embryos, "provided that these studies do not involve the transfer of an embryo to a person's uterus". "Individuals with genetic differences or disabilities can experience stigmatization and discrimination". Others included other scientists' failure to stop He despite awareness of his activities; growing interest in human genetic enhancement; interpretation of statements from groups like the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine as weakening the requirement for societal consensus; and no mechanism was created subsequently to ensure worldwide dialog about the appropriateness of clinical germline editing. Children with edited DNA could be affected psychologically in detrimental ways. Unequal access to the technology could increase inequality.

O'Neill was skeptical for yet another reason: "There has never been a broad societal consensus about anything in any country, not even the allocation of human rights, so expecting this as a benchmark for clinical adoption of germline therapy is unrealistic".

Around 30 countries (including the United States) already have legislation directly or indirectly banning clinical uses of human germline editing, but this standard is not held globally.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

Discuss This Article