Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Human Genome Editing: We Should All Have a Say

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Human Genome Editing: We Should All Have a Say

Article excerpt

Human genome editing: We should all have a say

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This article was originally published on The Conversation, an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts. Disclosure information is available on the original site.

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Author: Françoise Baylis, Professor and Canada Research Chair in Bioethics and Philosophy, Dalhousie University

Shoukhrat Mitalipov, a reproductive biologist at Oregon Health and Science University, is nothing if not a pioneer. In 2007, his team published proof-of-principle research in primates showing it was possible to derive stem cells from cloned primate embryos. In 2013, his team was the first to create human embryonic stem cells by cloning. Now, in 2017, his team is reported to have safely and effectively modified human embryos using the gene editing technique CRISPR.

Mitalipov's team is not the first to genetically modify human embryos. This was first accomplished in 2015 by a group of Chinese scientists led by Junjiu Huang. Mitalipov's team, however, may be the first to demonstrate basic safety and efficacy using the CRISPR technique.

This has serious implications for the ethics debate on human germline modification which involves inserting, deleting or replacing the DNA of human sperm, eggs or embryos to change the genes of future children.

Ethically controversial

Those who support human embryo research will argue that Mitalipov's research to alter human embryos is ethically acceptable because the embryos were not allowed to develop beyond 14 days (the widely accepted international limit on human embryo research) and because the modified embryos were not used to initiate a pregnancy. They will also point to the future potential benefit of correcting defective genes that cause inherited disease.

This research is ethically controversial, however, because it is a clear step on the path to making heritable modifications - genetic changes that can be passed down through subsequent generations.

Beyond safety and efficacy

Internationally, UNESCO has called for a ban on human germline gene editing. And the "Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Dignity of the Human Being with regard to the Application of Biology and Medicine" - the Oviedo Convention - specifies that "an intervention seeking to modify the human genome may only be undertaken for preventive, diagnostic or therapeutic purposes and only if its aim is not to introduce any modification in the genome of any descendants."

In a move away from the positions taken by UNESCO and included in the Oviedo Convention, in 2015 the 12-person Organizing Committee of the first International Summit on Human Gene Editing (of which I was a member) issued a statement endorsing basic and preclinical gene editing research involving human embryos.

The statement further stipulated, however, that: "It would be irresponsible to proceed with any clinical use of germline editing unless and until (i) the relevant safety and efficacy issues have been resolved, based on appropriate understanding and balancing of risks, potential benefits, and alternatives, and (ii) there is broad societal consensus about the appropriateness of the proposed application. …

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