Credit: Webridge

The human genome. Credit: Webridge

Chinese scientists brought the debate about the ethics of human gene editing into the spotlight in May this year when they published a research paper showing they had used the CRISPR system to modify human embryos. This reignited the argument about the use of genetic technologies in humans.

The debate has resurfaced with every development in genetic techniques since they first became possible in the 1970s.

What’s new is that advances in genetic techniques, specifically the use of CRISPR, mean that some of the previously theoretical uses may now be possible, cheaply and efficiently. The science isn’t yet in a position to design babies for height or intelligence (if that ever does become possible), but in the future it could be possible to edit blood cells to kill cancer, make people immune to HIV or prevent Huntington’s from being passed on to future generations.

How and when should this technology be used? This important question needs addressing, not only by scientists to establish what the technology is actually capable of now and in the near future, but also by the public, about whether the technology should be used at all.

Today the Royal Society, along with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the U.S. National Academy of Medicine, announced that they will be convening an international summit on human gene editing in December this year. The summit will look at the scientific, medical, ethical, and governance issues associated with advances in human gene-editing research.

This will follow a series of meetings on gene editing that are being held all over the world this autumn on the complex issues that the use of gene editing technologies in humans raises, with the hope that each of these meetings will help build together a diverse and robust body of discussion to help inform policy makers and regulators.

The first of these was the Hinxton Group meeting held in the first week of September. As an observer I was impressed with just how deliberative the group was as they robustly challenged each other. The Group reached a number of areas of consensus:

  • it is important that research continues
  • it is premature to use this technology clinically
  • it is important to have appropriate governance mechanisms in place
  • meaningful deliberative engagement with the public and policymakers is required

This is reflected in the consensus statement on Genome Editing Technologies and Human Germline Genetic Modification, which they released last week.

To open the discussion, also in the first week of September, the Wellcome Trust released a joint statement from funders of medical research. This statement also highlighted that there are potentially beneficial uses for gene editing technology in humans but it is early days. They note that research is required before it can be used clinically and that broad discussion between scientists, ethicists, regulators and the public is needed.

As highlighted by the statements released so far, potential application in humans is closer than ever, but more research is needed to establish if the new techniques can be used safely. And while that is being investigated, there are some important discussions to be had about whether the technology should be used.