Some scientists ask for ban on the gene editing of babies

It’s in response to a Chinese scientist’s program that led to several births from ‘edited’ embryos

Some researchers argue it’s too soon to alter the genes of human embryos, creating changes that can be inherited.

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Eighteen researchers have called for a temporary ban on the gene editing of babies. The authors of this statement include two pioneers in CRISPR. That’s the primary gene-editing tool.

“We call for a global moratorium” on changing the genes in sperm, eggs or embryos “to make genetically modified children,” say the researchers. They come from seven nations and presented their proposal in the March 14 Nature.

First, they argue, editing may not be safe enough yet. But another big worry is that changes to sperm, eggs and embryos can later be inherited by the children of the treated individuals. When such tweaks can be inherited, that might lead to human tinkering of our evolution. And any decision to do that should not be placed in the hands of a single doctor, researcher or institution, the researchers argue.

In polls, many Americans say they support this type of editing to correct diseases. But most people think it would be wrong to boost intelligence or to make a child more athletic or attractive. Such enhanced people are often called “designer babies.” Many people fear that designer babies would have an unfair advantage over other people.

Feng Zhang works in Cambridge, Mass., at the Broad Institute of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He led a team that was the first to report editing genes in human cells grown in a lab dish. Yet he signed onto the new statement. So did Emmanuelle Charpentier at the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens in Berlin, Germany. She was part of a team that published the first study describing CRISPR/Cas9 as a gene-editing tool.

The proposed ban would be temporary. About five years might be long enough, the researchers say. This would buy time for scientists to further test and refine CRISPR/Cas9 and other gene-editing tools. This could not only make these tools safer but also allow time for public education and debate about the technology and its potential impacts.

The ban would not be a law. Each country would instead pledge not to allow trials inside its borders that would create gene-edited children. Each nation also would decide how long its ban would last.

Gene editing of embryos, eggs and sperm would still be allowed in research. What would not be allowed: implanting those cells or tissues in a woman to establish a pregnancy.

Researchers could still use CRISPR/Cas9 and other gene-altering techniques to treat disease in people. However, those treatments could happen only if the gene changes could not be inherited.

Not everyone agrees, however, that a ban is needed. An advisory committee to the World Health Organization, in Geneva, Switzerland, has another proposal. It would like to see the creation of some global registry listing all projects on human gene editing. Such a database would provide transparency. By that it means no one would be caught off guard by something like the announcement, last year, that a researcher had just gene edited babies.

Such a registry might also lead to a better understanding of the state of gene-editing science. Or that’s what representatives of the WHO committee said in a March 19 news conference.

A reaction to rogue scientists

The new proposed ban is not the first time researchers and ethics experts have argued against the tweaking of genes that can be inherited.

The topic came up in a 2017 report that had been requested by the U.S. National Academies of Sciences and Medicine (NAS). It also was raised in international conferences on gene editing in humans. One took place in 2015. The other was last year. All three forums concluded it’s too early to alter human genes that can be inherited. In fact, they called the idea “irresponsible.” Such treatments should wait until the technology improves and wins broad public approval, they argued.

The big difference between those statements and the new one is the word “moratorium,” says R. Alta Charo. She works at the University of Wisconsin–Madison Law School. As a bioethicist, she studies issues of social values — such as whether something might be considered right or wrong — in activities involving biology. The ban proposers and the summit reports are saying basically the same thing. They just differ by that one word. “There is no real daylight, only a dictionary,” between what the two groups of scientists are saying, Charo says.

Still, none of those earlier warnings stopped Chinese scientist Jiankui He. He edited DNA in embryos that resulted in the birth of two baby girls last year. Another woman was reportedly pregnant with a gene-edited baby at the time. Back then, some researchers knew about He’s plans but did not stop him.

Despite big conferences calling the gene editing of babies irresponsible, this type of experiment went ahead, notes Paul Berg. He’s a Nobel prize winner and molecular geneticist in California at the Stanford University School of Medicine. “Clucking” about the experiments being irresponsible isn’t enough, he now argues. Clearly, he says, “We needed to say a little bit more and actually call for a moratorium.”

Berg, an author of the new proposal, admits the proposed ban is mostly a matter of new phrasing. Still, he says, word choices matter. “If everyone is saying it would be irresponsible to do it, then why not be explicit and say it should not be done?” he asks.

Will a voluntary ban matter?

The head of NAS, in Washington, D.C., published a letter in support of a voluntary ban. So did the head of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, in Bethesda, Md., and the Royal Society of Science in London, England. All of these appear in the same issue of Nature.

Other scientists say they support a ban, but they aren’t sure it will stop rogue scientists from still doing what He did. There’s no harm in using the word “moratorium,” says Stephan Guttinger. He’s a philosopher of biology in England at the London School of Economics and Political Science. However, he adds, “I don’t think someone will say: ‘Oh, someone said moratorium. I really can’t do that now.’”

Russ Altman is a bioengineer and geneticist at Stanford University in California. It may be easier to get a moratorium to stick, he says, now that He’s work has gotten so much negative attention. “Now a ban will have a bigger weight of scientific credibility,” he suspects. And that, he thinks, means it “would be more likely to be obeyed.”

Argues Altman, if countries agree to a voluntary ban, it would still have “the force of moral authority” — even if it doesn’t have legal weight of law.

Even some notable researchers, however, have doubts about the wisdom of calling for even a voluntary ban. Nobel laureate David Baltimore is among them. He is president emeritus of the California Institute of Technology, in Pasadena. A virologist and immunologist, he chaired the two big international conferences on human gene editing. Recommendations from those conferences “avoided using the term moratorium,” on purpose, he says. Why? “Because,” he notes, “that word has been associated with very firm rules about what you can do and what you can’t do.”

By calling for a ban, he says, “The idea gets fixed in people’s minds that we’re making firm statements about what we don’t want to do and for how long we don’t want to do it.” Yet when the science of gene editing is “moving forward as rapidly as this science is, you want to be able to adapt to new discoveries, new opportunities and new understandings.” So, while Baltimore, too, believes it is too early to tinker with genes that can be inherited by people, “To make rules [about that] is probably not a good idea.”

Editor’s note: Feng Zhang is a member of the board of trustees of Society for Science and the Public, an educational nonprofit in Washington, D.C., that also publishes Science News for Students.

Tina Hesman Saey is a senior staff writer and reports on molecular biology at Science News. She has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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