Four months have gone by since the first gene-edited twin babies were given birth. He Jiankui, the Chinese scientist, who carried out the experiments by using the CRISPR gene editing technique, claimed that the gene-edited babies would be resistant to HIV infections, and this will go on for future generations as well. But the news has shaken the scientific community, and heated debates across the world have erupted.
Now scientists and bioethicists from seven countries have come out with an appeal for a global moratorium on gene-editing experiments designed to alter heritable traits in human babies. The call for the moratorium has been published in Nature as a commentary. This is viewed as a direct response to He’s work that disregarded the global consensus on ethical boundaries of gene-editing human subjects. The moratorium is also an acknowledgement of the failure of many warnings that emerged from numerous conferences about the ethics of gene-editing on human beings. The Chinese case has proved that the ethical warnings have not been sufficiently clear and emphatic.
The appellants of the moratorium include two of the primary inventors of the CRISPR technology—Feng Zhang of MIT, US and Emmanuelle Charpentier of Max Planck Institute for Science of Pathogens, Berlin. Apart from calling for the moratorium, the authors also propose setting up of an international governing body that would oversee the use of the technology.
Francis Collins, the director of NIH (National Institute of Health), US, stated in support of the moratorium and the proposed governing body. “What we’re talking about here is one of the most fundamental moments of decision about the application of science to something of enormous societal consequence. Are we going to cross the line toward redesigning ourselves?” Collins said to Washington Post.
The Nature commentary does not call for a permanent ban on gene editing on human subjects. What it has called for is a temporary stop on gene editing done on germline cells—the sperm and egg cells, that can result in pregnancy. The moratorium is not intended to cover researches that don’t contain gene editing on non-germline cells—the somatic cells—as gene editing on these cells would not be heritable.
The authors of the Nature commentary call for an international framework supported by a coordinating body that could be part of the World Health Organisation. They are proposing a moratorium that spans at least five years within which the international framework could be set up. They strongly endorse the involvement of non-scientific perspectives like that of religious groups and people with disabilities in the discussion that would be made open by governments of the countries that have the gene editing researches on human subjects.
“To begin with, there should be a fixed period during which no clinical uses of germline editing whatsoever are allowed. As well as allowing for discussions about the technical, scientific, medical, societal, ethical and moral issues that must be considered before germline editing is permitted, this period would provide time to establish an international framework,” the authors wrote.
The moratorium has been proposed within the ethical framework that says that no one should be given a free hand in editing genes that could become a permanent trait of the human species unless there is broad agreement that such editing is safe, necessary and ethical. And for this purpose, the international coordinating body that opens up the debate to both scientific and non-scientific perspectives is a necessity. The 2015 summit in Washington also concluded with a consensus statement that also had the idea of such a moratorium, which didn’t take place: “It would be irresponsible to proceed with any clinical use of germline editing unless and until (i) the relevant safety and efficacy issues have been resolved, based on appropriate understanding and balancing of risks, potential benefits, and alternatives, and (ii) there is broad societal consensus about the appropriateness of the proposed application. Moreover, any clinical use should proceed only under appropriate regulatory oversight.”
Also read: World’s First Gene Edited Twin Babies: How Ethical is This?