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CRISPR Leaders Argue Against Total Ban on Human Germline Editing

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – As scientists from around the world prepare to discuss the implications of genome editing for both science and society, two leaders in the CRISPR/Cas9 field today published essays making the case against a ban on human germline editing.

Jennifer Doudna, of the University of California, Berkeley, and George Church, of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and Harvard Medical School, both highlighted the need for regulation, but to different ends. They published their opinions today in Nature.

Doudna argued for regulation to enforce what she hopes will be widely agreed-upon boundaries on genome editing research, especially on human germline editing. "A complete ban might prevent research that could lead to future therapies, and it is also impractical given the widespread accessibility and ease of use of CRISPR/Cas9," she wrote.

She offered a five-point plan for scientists and policy makers to follow in order to advance CRISPR/Cas9 in both human and non-human biology. Specifically, she called for researchers to develop standard methods for measuring the efficiency and off-target effects of genome editing technologies to help compare clinical trials, and she also called for guidance from the international community on what should be considered ethical or unethical research. Regulation, she said, could help ensure safety and efficacy of genome editing in humans.

Church offered the examples of several existing regulations that might also govern human genome editing and suggested that a ban could drive the practice underground, away from the public view. "Banning human-germline editing could put a damper on the best medical research and instead drive the practice underground to black markets and uncontrolled medical tourism, which are fraught with much greater risk and misapplication," he wrote. "Instead, the generally high safety and efficacy standards of regulatory agencies should be encouraged rather than saddled with pessimistic assumptions about the trajectory of promising approaches."

Moreover, he suggested that a ban would not deter those already determined to exploit the technology, pointing to the pervasive doping in sport, especially at the highest levels." A ban, he said, "would do little to allay concerns about ethically dubious attempts to 'enhance' humans. To think that there is not already a cadre of IVF clinicians poised to engage in such practices, perhaps even supported by governments, is to ignore, for example, the history of doping in sport. These kinds of ambitious individuals and institutions are unlikely to be dissuaded by an agreement made on their behalf by others with a different view."

Though against a complete ban, Doudna did, however, suggest a pause on "human-germline editing for the purposes of creating genome-modified humans." The only published study on CRISPR/Cas9-based human germline editing suggests that the technology, in its current state, is not ready for clinical use.

If and when the technology reaches the point where it could be considered ready to create genome-modified humans, Doudna's "appropriate middle ground" could already be defined. Scientists will meet this week at the National Academy of Sciences for three days of discussion and more meetings on the topic of human genome editing are scheduled in the near future, in locations around the world.