CRISPR baby moratorium grows likely with rising tide of support including from biotech

Trying to make a CRISPR baby any time soon would be a really bad idea.CRISPR gene edit vs mutation

How bad?

Last December 3rd I penned a piece for STAT News arguing for a moratorium on the heritable use of CRISPR in humans. This potential future, radical application of “gene editing” is now often colloquially referred to as “CRISPR babies”. Read that piece for the reasons behind my thinking and the risks involved in leaving the door open to using CRISPR to make people.

Of course, this was on everyone’s minds because He Jiankui had recently announced that he had made CRISPR’d twin baby girls and at least one more was on the way in the future.

Back in 2015  I had argued for a moratorium on CRISPR babies both here on The Niche several times and when I gave my TED Talk on designer babies, which now has more than 1.3 million views. That was quite an experience, accentuated by giving it on Halloween.

I have to say that it’s been fairly lonely on the pro-moratorium side of the CRISPR baby debate for years. I knew that other people felt the same, but almost nobody was saying anything concrete in the public domain.

But that has changed in a positive and dramatic way recently.

In March 18 scientists and other researchers published a commentary in Nature arguing for a moratorium. It was refreshing to read that. Here are the author’s names in order: Eric S. Lander, Françoise Baylis, Feng Zhang, Emmanuelle Charpentier, Paul Berg, Catherine Bourgain, Bärbel Friedrich Keith Joung, Jinsong Li, David Liu, Luigi Naldini, Jing-Bao Nie, Renzong Qiu, Bettina Schoene-Seifert, Feng Shao, Sharon Terry, Wensheng Wei, and Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker.

Many influential researchers there.

Now this week, a striking letter from top gene therapy and genome researchers echoed the call for a moratorium. Part of what is so notable about the letter is the extraordinary number of biotech scientists signing it. All opposed to CRISPR babies. Also, more than 60 people signed the new letter in total. It’s very encouraging to see this.

The other unusual thing about this letter is that it was addressed to a governmental official, the Secretary of HHS here in the U.S. Alex Azar and Cc’d to other governmental leaders.  Scientists don’t often ask political figures for more regulation.

Still, two names in particular are notable due to their absence: CRISPR pioneer Jennifer Doudna and Nobel Laureate David Baltimore. While Baltimore’s reasons are articulated to some extent here in a recent interview, it’s been less clear why Doudna seems opposed to a moratorium and in the past she seemed to favor the idea.

I have tremendous respect for Baltimore and Doudna (and there are a few other top researchers against a moratorium including, to name three, George Daley, Alta Charo, and Robin Lovell-Badge), but I see little common sense, scientific, or medical reason to leave the door open to CRISPR babies in the near future.

It just makes no sense to me and I haven’t seen a concrete, convincing argument from any of them really.

Their possible rationales against even a temporary moratorium seem to boil down to (A) extremely rare and sometimes hypothetical future scenarios where embryo screening might not work so reproductive CRISPR (assuming it was perfected to a clinical-grade level and that societal issues were resolved) could arguably be an option in the future, and (B) worries that a moratorium could restrict science or lead to reactionary enforcement actions against scientists.

These aren’t good, convincing reasons in my view.

I cannot see any harm in an explicitly temporary 3-year or even 5-year moratorium only on implantation of CRISPR’d human embryos and not on in vitro research or on somatic uses. This quote from Baltimore is perhaps the most remarkable thing I’ve read in a long time in regard to heritable human CRISPR (emphasis mine):

“With a science that’s moving forward as rapidly as this science is, you want to be able to adapt to new discoveries, new opportunities and new understandings. To make rules is probably not a good idea

Rules are a bad idea?

Looking ahead, I predict there will be one or more new moratoriums either in specific countries or via a wider body like the U.N. or some scientific bodies, but that in other places things will remain gray and more CRISPR babies will be born here and there. That won’t be the end of the world, but it could lead to a lot of problems later on most likely.

Overall, it’s good to see the scientific community show some degree of unity on this issue spanning both academia and biotech.

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