One of the hottest topics in the biomedical world in 2015 is heritable human genetic modification including via germ cells.
There is an unsettling sense that genetically modified human germ cells and eventually GMO human beings are likely coming even if science and society are not ready for it. There are a hodgepodge of laws against human germline genetic modification, but it’s not clear that these regulations can realistically stop it from happening everywhere and they often do not apply to making GMO human germ cells.
In a commentary piece published today in Nature, the group representing a host of clinical stem cell biotech’s, the Alliance for Regenerative Medicine (ARM), and scientists from genome-editing company Sangamo, called for a moratorium on germline human genetic modification.
The piece had a very strongly worded title: Don’t edit the human germ line.
There’s really no way to misinterpret the sentiment of this article penned by Edward Lanphier, Fyodor Urnov, Sarah Ehlen Haecker, Michael Werner & Joanna Smolenski.
Part of what makes their piece so compelling is that some of the authors are themselves deeply involved in clinical gene editing, but for gene therapy and not germline modification.
Notably, the moratorium that the authors propose would be voluntary. I’m not sure how well that’d work. There’s probably a race-to-be-first mentality amongst certain scientists to be the “pioneer” to make genetically modified human germ cells and I’m betting that “top” journals would scramble to want to publish such work even if it is ethically complex to put it mildly. Once human GMO sperm and eggs are produced (image from normal ones from Bing; image in the public domain), it’s hard to imagine them never being used.
Don’t get me wrong. I think the moratorium would be a wise move, but I’m just not sure it will stop human GMO from becoming a reality. Still, a pause could have a positive influence on how this technology unfolds in humans.
Antonio Regalado over at MIT Technology Review has a nice article on this call for a moratorium as well. In it he quoted George Church as not being a fan of the moratorium idea:
“George Church, a professor at Harvard Medical School whose laboratory studies CRISPR and germ-line editing, says a voluntary moratorium would be weak compared with existing regulations that nearly all countries impose on the use of new medical technologies “until they are proven safe and effective in animals or human [tests].” Church was referring to rules governing the birth of actual gene-edited children, not basic research.”
This fits with what Church said in my recent interview with him earlier this week.
Regalado also quoted on the other side, Bernie Siegel, a member of the ARM Executive Committee:
“Bernard Siegel, a patient advocate who is a member of the committee, confirmed that he’d been briefed on the text and agreed with it. “In a broad, sweeping way, [the technology] just raises the prospect of eugenics,” he said. “Who is going to make the decision of making a better human? The technology is so sweeping it’s like the era of science fiction is here and now.”
I tend to agree with my friend Bernie on this.
Bottom line. So what’s next for human germ line gene editing? I expect that there will continue to be calls for a voluntary moratorium and some groups will honor such calls, but I predict that other groups will not and in fact I think that some teams have already made genetically modified human germ cells and some others will make them in the near future.