April 21, 2024

White House backs review of gene-editing technology

International conference planned for autumn.

The Obama Administration has backed calls for an in-depth ethical review of gene-editing technology. This move came swiftly after Chinese scientists announced that they had altered the genome of non-viable human embryos earlier in May. “The Administration believes that altering the human germline for clinical purposes is a line that should not be crossed at this time,” said John P. Holdren, the white House science advisor.

The US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and its National Academy of Medicine (NAM) have convened an international meeting in the (northern) autumn to discuss the implications of human germline gene-editing technologies in both research and clinical applications. Holdren says that great circumspection is needed:

“Research along these lines raises serious and urgent questions about the potential implications for clinical applications that could lead to genetically altered humans. The full implications of such a step could not be known until a number of generations had inherited the genetic changes made — and choices made in one country could affect all of us.”

The NAS summit will bring together international experts to explore the scientific, ethical, and policy issues associated with human gene-editing research. A committee will consider and recommend standards, guidelines, and practices in the US and around the world. The NAS regards this as a new Asilomar conferece, a 1975 gathering which led to guidelines for recombinant DNA research.

Columbia University biology professor Robert Pollack published a strong letter in Science which sums up the unease among some scientists:

This opening to germline modification is, simply put, the opening of a return to the agenda of eugenics: the positive selection of “good” versions of the human genome and the weeding out of “bad” versions, not just for the health of an individual, but for the future of the species…

Rational eugenics is still eugenics. The best in the world will not remove the pain from those borninto a world of germ-line modification but who had not been given a costly investment in their gametes. They will emerge with the complexity of a genome different from what this technology will be able to define as “normal.” I do not think anything short of a complete and total ban on human germline modification will do, to prevent this powerful force for rational medicine—one patient at a time—from becoming the beginning of the end of the simplest notion of each of us being “endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights.”

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