WASHINGTON, D.C. — Making “designer babies” by genetic engineering is irresponsible, hundreds of scientists urged at a conference on Thursday. They called for a delay in fertility clinic use of the promising new technology until scientists figure out the safety risks and the general public grapples with a coming era of genetic engineering.
“It would be irresponsible to proceed with any clinical use,” read the statement from the National Academy of Sciences, which co-sponsored the Summit on Human Gene Editing with the British and Chinese science academies.
Over three days of talks and presentations, scientists weighed the promise and peril of a new gene editing technology called CRISPR, which is revolutionizing biology labs worldwide by allowing fast, cheap, and easy editing of genes in experiments.
“Modified cells should not be used to establish a pregnancy,” said the summit’s chair, Nobel prize winner David Baltimore of Caltech, who presented the statement on behalf of its organizing committee. But he added that the statement was neither a call for a moratorium or ban on designer babies, but rather an assessment of where the science of genetic engineering stands today.
CRISPR has already led to the first genetic engineering of human embryos, reported in April by Chinese researchers who, after doing their initial experiments, imposed a temporary moratorium on it. A number of scientific groups and two biotechnology firms seeking genetic medical treatments with CRISPR have already called for halts to reproductive cell genetic engineering.
The statement urges continued research on animal reproductive cells and embryos, to assess both the safety of the technology and determine how often it delivers unintended changes to genes. And Baltimore said the Chinese study from April was acceptable under the statement's guidelines, because it involved embryos that didn't result in a pregnancy.
"Research should only continue in line with existing laws and regulations," said MIT biologist Eric Lander, a member of the summit organizing committee.
While calling for a delay in genetic tweaks to fertility clinic embryos, the statement also recommended more research on using these genetic tools to develop treatments of diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis B, which affect millions of people worldwide.
"There is a very widespread effort to assess the accuracy of gene editing underway," said Jennifer Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley, who led the efforts to develop CRISPR in 2012.
Scientists acknowledged that their call for keeping genetic engineering away from fertility clinics will have no teeth without support from governments and the general public. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences has embarked on a study separate from the summit of broad societal implication of genetic engineering.
“Many more kinds of people are doing life science experiments now,” Stanford University’s David Relman said in a presentation at the summit, noting the limited power of top scientists to halt experiments today. Even without designer babies, the widespread ability to edit genes could result in a new kind of biological weapon, he suggested.
Genetic engineering poses a classic “dual use” threat, he added, seen in past technologies such as nuclear power and vaccine efforts, where research to harness benefits also opens the door to illicit uses of a technology.
Relman ended his talk by noting reports of ISIS executing a scientist at the University of Mosul earlier this year after he refused to help them make bioweapons. “It’s silly not to think about these kinds of risks,” he concluded.
Dan Vergano is a science reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
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