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Scientists Call for Caution in Use of CRISPR/Cas9 Technology

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – Concerned with possible adverse consequences resulting from modifications to the human germline by CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing technology, leading scientists have strongly discouraged such research. They also proposed a gathering of international stakeholders to discuss the societal, legal, and ethical implications of the use of the rapidly advancing technology.

Led by David Baltimore and CRISPR/Cas9 co-discoverer Jennifer Doudna and including experts in law, ethics, and medicine, the group published an editorial this week in Science, advocating for wide-ranging discussions and transparency in the scientific community and beyond. The editorial came out of a January meeting in Napa, Calif. that sought a multi-disciplinary evaluation of the potential risks and rewards of genome editing with CRISPR/Cas9.

"It would be wise to begin a discussion that bridges the research community, relevant industries, medical centers, regulatory bodies, and the public to explore responsible uses of this technology," the authors wrote, noting that the simplicity and effectiveness of CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing has suddenly made precise human germline editing a possibility.

The biological science community has a precedent to follow, they said, alluding to similar discussions about the use of recombinant DNA in the 1970s that included a meeting known as the Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA, held in 1975. Paul Berg, an organizer of that conference, was a co-author on this week's publication.

"At the dawn of the recombinant DNA era, the most important lesson learned was that public trust in science ultimately begins with and requires ongoing transparency and open discussion," the authors wrote.  "That lesson is amplified today with the emergence of CRISPR/Cas9 technology and the imminent prospects for genome engineering."

Even though germline genome modification is currently illegal in many countries, including the U.S., the authors expressed concern that such work may proceed, nonetheless, especially in countries with lax jurisdictions, and said that steps should be taken to discourage "germline genome modification for clinical applications in humans, while societal, environmental, and ethical implications of such activity are discussed among scientific and governmental organizations."

Despite their fears around human germline modification, the authors acknowledged that the tradeoff between risk and rewards in CRIPSR/Cas9 research could tip in favor of human health. "A key point of discussion is whether the treatment or cure of severe diseases in humans would be a responsible use of genome engineering, and if so, under what circumstances," the authors wrote.

To manage risk, the authors made several concrete recommendations among less specific calls for discussion and transparency. They suggested standardized benchmarking to determine the frequency and severity of off-target effects of genome editing and to allow for proper risk assessment.

The authors also called to convene a group of globally representative parties, with experts from the fields of genetics, law, and bioethics, as well as members from governmental agencies, private interest groups, and the general public to discuss the issues around genome engineering and to recommend policies.

The editorial follows a similar editorial published earlier this month in Nature, which suggested a ban on editing the human germ line.