The US Congress recently held its first hearing on human germline genetic modification.
The meeting included CRISPR-Cas9 pioneer Jennifer Doudna (see video here) on the panel. See image of Cas9 structure from Wikipedia. CRISPR-Cas9 is a powerful, strikingly efficient tool for genetic engineering of cells and whole organisms.
Now Republican congressional leaders have included a provision in the current spending bill that would block editing of viable human embryos and could interfere with important research.
Concern over a possible reactive move by Congress on human embryo editing has been building so this was not exactly a shock, but is still a concern. The National Academy of Sciences and its Institute of Medicine (IOM) have taken on the task of holding a meeting more broadly on the issue of heritable human genetic modification and issuing a report.
According to multiple sources including a great new piece in Nature News by Sara Reardon, the US House would also require the US FDA to consult religious “experts” as it weighs three-person IVF, a form of human genetic modification intended to prevent genetic mitochondrial diseases. Three-person IVF has been approved in the UK, but not in the US due at least in part to unresolved safety concerns. I have been one of the main scientists openly questioning whether three-person IVF is ready for prime time because of limited relevant pre-clinical data.
From Reardon’s article:
“The House legislation calls for another layer of review. It would direct the FDA to establish “an independent panel of experts, including those from faith-based institutions with expertise on bioethics and faith-based medical associations” to review the IOM report once released.”
I am concerned over the possibility of heritable human genetic modification including the future possibility of efforts at human enhancement. However, requiring that religious figures in a sense instruct the FDA or the biomedical community is the wrong way to go.
I’m also not a fan of the idea of legislation restricting the use of genetic modification technology. So I’m with Hank Greely of Stanford who said, “This step seems dumb…”.
To me the best approach instead would be a moratorium imposed promptly by the scientific community specifically on clinical use of human germline modification technology, while allowing in vitro research to occur on a limited basis with careful bioethics training, transparency, and institutional oversight (see my ABCD plan). Could someone violate such a moratorium? Of course that is possible, but a moratorium would at least reduce that risk and importantly serve to place any rogue efforts into an appropriate context both for the scientific community itself and the public.