July 5, 2022

Germline tinkering sparks more controversy

Francis S. Collins and Julian Savulescu take diametrically opposed sides.

Chinese attempts to modify the human genome using new gene editing technology are still stirring the pot of ethical controversy. The director of the US National Institutes of Health, Francis S. Collins, declared forthrightly this week that the NIH would not fund such research.

“The concept of altering the human germline in embryos for clinical purposes has been debated over many years from many different perspectives, and has been viewed almost universally as a line that should not be crossed. Advances in technology have given us an elegant new way of carrying out genome editing, but the strong arguments against engaging in this activity remain. These include the serious and unquantifiable safety issues, ethical issues presented by altering the germline in a way that affects the next generation without their consent, and a current lack of compelling medical applications justifying the use of CRISPR/Cas9 in embryos. [As well], Practically, there are multiple existing legislative and regulatory prohibitions against this kind of work.”

Critics of the controversial experiments in which scientists tried to correct a defect in a single-cell embryo’s DNA believe that the technology will be used for genetic engineering and ultimately, human enhancement. Nature and Science refused to publish the research, despite its show-stopping potential.

Oxford bioethicist Julian Savulescu, the editor of the Journal of Medical Ethics, agrees that it will be used for genetic engineering – but he denounces the denunciation as immoral. In his eyes, it opens the door to curing serious genetic diseases.

“Gene editing is a revolutionary technology, which potentially offers the next generation an enormous range of benefits. It is important that bad arguments, empty rhetoric and personal interests do not cloud rational thinking and deny the next generation the enormous benefits potentially on offer from this type of research…

“Far from being wrong, the research by Huang and colleagues is ethically imperative… Imagine that I am a scientist. I have a promising candidate treatment that could save the lives of a million people per year. I decide not to continue the research. I am responsible for the deaths of those million people if my research would have led to a cure.

“One is left with the suspicion that religious reasons are behind the ‘ethical’ justifications for not accepting this research. And scientists must be terrified by a Christian fundamentalist backlash against their research if they are connected in anyway with research on human embryos. This could be detrimental to their funding and their commercial interests in developments using CRISPR that don’t involve embryos.”

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genetical engineering
germline therapy
Julian Savulescu