March 3, 2024

Germline modification now on the horizon

A new report finds that recent rapid advances in stem cell research and genetic technologies make it far more likely than generally thought that human germline genetic modification — permanent modification of the human genome — will happen.

The Genetics & Public Policy Center, at Johns Hopkins University, describes recent scientific advances that “will catapult us over what were understood to be the principal technical barriers to human germline genetic modification”.

Scientists have been able to replace a faulty gene with a “normal” copy in mouse embryonic stem cells and then introduce those stem cells into an early mouse embryo where they can give rise to genetically modified sperm or eggs. This will soon be possible with humans, says the report. One possible use is eliminating single-gene mutations like cystic fibrosis. Another is making a “genetic vaccine” against a serious disease. Even more controversial would be modification for intelligence or strength, although this would be far harder because the genetics of these traits are largely unknown.

“Germline modification is just one example of a genetic technology that is moving faster than public dialogue and public policy,” observes Kathy Hudson, the Center’s director. “Our window of opportunity is closing for academic discussion of the very real social issues here.”