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Researchers minimize ethical, safety concerns over gene editing

By David Prentice, PhD | April 21, 2016

Excerpted from, "Gene-editing research in human embryos gains momentum," Nature, April 19, 2016 - At the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Fredrik Lanner is preparing to edit genes in human embryos. It’s the kind of research that sparked an international frenzy in April last year, when a Chinese team revealed that it had done the world’s first such experiments. But Lanner doesn’t expect his work, which will explore early human development, to cause such a fuss. A year of discussion about the ethics of embryo-editing research, and perhaps simply the passage of time, seems to have blunted its controversial edge — although such work remains subject to the same ethical anxieties that surround other reproductive-biology experiments. “At least in the scientific community, I sense more support for basic-research applications,” says Lanner, who gained approval for his experiments last June.

His instinct seems to be borne out by the fairly muted reaction to a 6 April report of an experiment to edit human embryos — only the second to be published. A team led by Yong Fan at Guangzhou Medical University in China used the gene-editing technology CRISPR–Cas9 to try to introduce a mutation that makes humans resistant to HIV infection.

The ethics committee of the university-affiliated hospital that approved Fan’s work says that it has green-lighted two other embryo-editing projects; such research is ethically sound because it will lead to improvements in gene-editing technology and could help to prevent diseases, a committee spokesperson says. Last December, an international summit of scientists and ethicists declared that gene editing should not be done in human embryos that are intended for use in establishing a pregnancy — but it endorsed basic research.

Research involving the editing of human embryos will begin soon elsewhere in the world, if it hasn’t done so privately already. Norms for conducting and publishing human-embryo-editing work are still taking shape. Snyder says that whenever possible, researchers should use alternatives, such as embryos of non-human primates. And when it is not, they should use only surplus embryos that would ordinarily be discarded from in vitro fertilization clinics.

Some scientists contend that gene-editing experiments designed to probe human development, such as those planned by Lanner and Niakan, are more valuable than experiments that are intended to lay the groundwork for creating genetically modified humans. “At the moment, there seems little point in pursuing long-term clinical goals when there’s so much not known about the technique with human embryos,” says Lovell-Badge.


Commentary

Dr. David PrenticeCMDA Member and Research Director at Charlotte Lozier Institute David Prentice, PhD: “We hate to say ‘told you so,’ but…that is certainly the phrase that comes to mind. The lure of human experimentation continues. And the justifications continue to grow – ‘non-viable’ embryos, basic research on early human development, not transferring embryos to the womb (yet). But the main point of these experiments, and the subject, is indeed to alter the genome of living human beings, embryonic though they may be.

“Almost exactly one year ago, there was great concern that anyone might undertake experiments with human embryos, testing CRISPR, the newest genetic manipulation tool. The concern was shared by scientists across the political spectrum and from students to Nobel laureates, not to mention the general public. NIH emphasized that this research would not be funded, and the White House called for caution. At the time, CMDA pointed out the dangers and ethical slippery slope of genetic experiments with human embryos, including creation of three-parent embryos.

“But some scientists talked about ‘basic research’ to test the techniques, or eventually prevent disease, a siren call. Four months ago, scientists from the U.S., U.K. and China met in Washington, D.C. to discuss not whether to move ahead, but how to move ahead with such experiments. While they generally agreed not to create genetically modified human embryos that would be placed in the womb, the possibility of genetic manipulation of human embryos was on the table. Two months ago, the Institute on Medicine announced that it deemed ethical the generation of three-parent embryos, as well as gestation of these new genetically-manufactured humans.

“Now we see the beginning of a gold rush to mine the genetic engineering of human embryos. The U.S. Congress has drawn a line for the time being that blocks such experiments, but there needs to be a groundswell of voices urging a complete prohibition on human embryo experiments and engineering of the next generation. One of the scientists pushing the genetic envelope says, ‘We should give the public the credit for being able to understand the difference between research into genetically modified embryos and genetically modifying human beings.’

“Maybe the professionals need to learn the lesson first—that young human beings are still human beings.”

Resources
Modest but Meaningful Protection from Human Embryo Genetic Manipulation Townhall commentary by Dr. David Prentice
The future of gene editing - CMDA, February 14, 2016
New gene-editing technology offers promise but poses threat to future generations - CMDA, December 4, 2015

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