January 24, 2021

The Niche

Trusted stem cell blog & resources

News bites & rumors on human embryo genetic modification

crispr of human embryos
Crispr gene editing can be applied to human embryos. NIH Image.

A lot has happened in the week since the first human embryo genetic modification paper was published by a team led by Junjiu Huang.

There have been a number of new events just in the last few days.

Jocelyn Kaiser over at SCIENCEINSIDER has a new piece reporting a couple important developments including that the journal that published the human embryo editing paper, Protein & Cell, has issued an editorial explaining the review process for the paper. They argue that the review was fast, but appropriate:

“Due to the scientific value and ethical dispute of this study, we not only conducted scientific peer-review, but also consulted related publishing and ethical experts,” wrote Rao, a structural biologist at Nankai University in Tianjin, in an e-mail to Science. “The authors also revised the manuscript based on our suggestions,” he added. He explains that the journal typically reviews submitted papers within 2 weeks, but for significant work they expedite the process. (A Springer representative tells Nature News that review went quickly in part because Huang and his colleagues also submitted the peer-review comments provided to them by Nature and Science and had revised the paper with them in mind.)”

Kaiser also reports that the Society for Developmental Biology has called for a moratorium on any editing of human embryos including in vitro. From the statement:

“SDB supports a voluntary moratorium by members of the scientific community on all manipulation of preimplantation human embryos by genome editing. Such studies raise deep ethical concerns on their own, and in addition could lead to unanticipated consequences if manipulated embryos were implanted into a womb and allowed to develop to term.”

NIH has now issued a statement as well on human embryo genetic modification reiterating that no NIH funding can be used for this kind of work. In addition they remind us that the FDA would have regulatory authority over any attempt to clinically use human genetic modification technology. I’m not so convinced that the FDA could or would do much proactively or even reactively about rogue attempts to make GM people frankly, unless some political pressure came to bear. Note that the NIH also included a nifty CRISPR graphic in the post on their statement that I have pasted above.

The concern over human modification and the potential for designer babies in the future from this kind of technology is gradually entering the public consciousness. Eric Schadt of the Icahn Institute was interviewed on a segment on CBS This Morning on these concerns. I have to say it was a very strange interview with the hosts peppering him with mostly positive-biased questions about what this technology might do if used in actual people and very little discussion of risks.

What’s going on behind the scenes with human embryo genetic modification? Things are still pretty murky out there with many rumors out there. There seems to be a consensus amongst rumors, for whatever it is worth, that at least one more paper will be published this year from another team in China and probably more than one, probably not in top impact journals. Another bit of chatter is that a future paper will have American authors on it even if the actual embryo editing did not occur in the US, although others think that a paper from a team in the US could be in the works.

I don’t know if it is connected to the sense of tension over possible future attempts at clinical germline human genetic modification, but concerns over the potential for attempts at human reproductive cloning are also bouncing around presently. Both cases highlight emerging possibly quick difficult dual use dilemmas in the life sciences.

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