In light of Chinese researchers reporting their efforts to edit the genes of ‘non-viable’ human embryos, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins issued a statement (H/T Carl Zimmer).
(For what it’s worth, the research indicated a very low success rate in editing the gene.)
The statement mentions the various legal and regulatory prohibitions on funding the kind of research the Chinese conducted. In this case, the editing was of a gene responsible for a particular blood disorder. But the changes to the gene would be heritable by the descendants (if the embryos in question were viable), and that is the source of concern.
From the Director’s statement (CRISPR/Cas9 is the editing technique in question):
“NIH will not fund any use of gene-editing technologies in human embryos. 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.”
While Collins also notes the federal laws and regulations that restrict funding, I do not expect the statement to be the end of the discussion around the gene-editing research reported on in China (which is probably continuing). I suspect many would find the use of non-viable embryos in this research acceptable, even if it punts on the questions of consent to changes for future generations and the safety of the techniques on viable embryos. After all, stem cell research lines have been derived from non-viable embryos. I think that the need to (eventually) work with these technologies on viable human embryos makes the stem cell comparison problematic, but that won’t likely matter in the policy debates to come.