BioPharma, Policy

Scholars call for global moratorium on human gene editing following ‘CRISPR babies’ scandal

The 18 signatories emphasized that the moratorium wouldn’t constitute a ban or include gene editing for research or treatment of diseases, but called on nations to develop a framework to govern the practice.

A scandal that erupted late last year following the announcement of the birth of babies who had been genetically modified has led more than a dozen scientists involved with gene editing to call for an international moratorium on human genetic engineering.

In a statement published in the journal Nature Wednesday, the 18 scientists stated that while they were not calling for a permanent ban on the practice, countries should voluntarily commit to not approving the editing of heritable DNA, also known as human germline editing, unless certain conditions are met.

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In the beginning, they wrote, there should be a fixed period during which there are no clinical uses of germline editing allowed, while allowing for discussions about the various issues to be considered before permitting it and the establishment of an international framework. Afterward, nations could either allow specific applications of germline editing under certain conditions, continue the moratorium or ban it entirely. The moratorium would not apply to germline editing for research purposes, as long as there is no transfer of an embryo to a person’s uterus, or editing of non-reproductive cells to treat illnesses.

In November, Chinese scientist Jiankui He caused an uproar when he announced on YouTube, and subsequently defended at a conference in Hong Kong, the birth of twin baby girls whose genomes he claimed to have modified using CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing technology to make them immune to HIV infection. In January, Chinese news media reported that second woman was pregnant with a gene-edited child as well. Other gene-editing technologies include zinc finger nucleases, or ZFNs, and transcription activator-like effector nucleases, or TALENs.

He’s announcement was among several factors that, signatories said, rendered a 2015 statement on genetic engineering inadequate. Others included other scientists’ failure to stop He despite awareness of his activities; growing interest in human genetic enhancement; interpretation of statements from groups like the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine as weakening the requirement for societal consensus; and no mechanism was created subsequently to ensure international dialog about the appropriateness of clinical germline editing.

Signatories included Feng Zhang of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Broad Institute, considered a pioneer of CRISPR/Cas9 technology, as well as other scholars and advocates from the Broad and institutions in the US, Germany, France, China, Canada and New Zealand.

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