Today was the final day of an International Summit on Human Gene Editing, hosted at the National Academies in Washington. The event was sponsored by the Presidents of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Medicine, the Royal Society of the United Kingdom, and the Chinese National Academy of Sciences.
The three day meeting led to a statement outlining four basic conclusions on how to approach gene editing for at least the near future. Some of the language should be familiar to anyone following discussions about emerging technologies dating back to at least the Asilomar conference of the 1970s that outlined how to approach research in recombinant DNA. The recommendations:
- Basic and preclinical research should proceed under appropriate legal and ethical rules and guidance on the following topics:
(i) technologies for editing genetic sequences in human cells,
(ii) the potential benefits and risks of proposed clinical uses, and
(iii) understanding the biology of human embryos and germline cells.
Any germline cells or embryos edited in the course of this research must not be used to facilitate a pregnancy.
- Clinical research and therapy on somatic cells (where the genomes of cells are not passed on to subsequent generations) can proceed under existing (and future) regulations covering gene therapy research.
The rationale behind this recommendation is that the limited impact of research and therapy on somatic cells makes the considerations of ethical and legal impacts comparable to other genetic therapies that do not use the editing techniques (such as CRISPR) discussed at the conference. Arguably humans have been using gene editing techniques for a few decades. However, the emergence of CRISPR and other techniques has improved the precision and speed of gene editing to the point where conversations about how to use these techniques (and when not to) should take place.
- Clinical research and therapy on germline cells (where the genomes of cells are passed on to subsequent generations) would be irresponsible until the relevant safety and efficacy issues are resolved and there is sufficient societal consensus that the proposed application is appropriate.
To date, the committee does not think any proposed gene editing research on germline cells has met either criteria. This is particularly true for the countries and jurisdictions that have bans in place for germline editing.
- An international forum on gene editing should be established to monitor and engage with the ongoing research in this area.
The event sponsors have expressed support for coordinating with other national science bodies to establish such a forum.
As researchers in China using CRISPR arguably prompted this effort to discuss uses of gene editing research it is encouraging to see the Chinese National Academy of Sciences playing a role in the discussion. Lacking an enforcement mechanism for implementing these suggestions, it may well fall to the soft power of persuasion from scientific institutions to apply the appropriate caution in working through the future of gene editing research.