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Call to Further Evaluate Human Germline Editing

Five UK organizations are calling for further discussions about the potential use of gene editing technologies such as CRISPR/Cas-9 for human germline editing, even as some are calling for a ban on the technology for such purposes.  

In a statement issued today, the organizations say that while UK law prohibits germline editing for clinical purposes, "there may be future potential to apply genome editing in a clinical context using human germ cells or embryos." 

A spokesperson for the Wellcome Trust, one of the organizations that issued a joint statement calling for continued evaluation of the UK's policy, told The Scan that they are not calling for a change in the law to allow germline editing. Instead, they are asking for further debate "about how far we want to take these technologies." 

In addition to the Wellcome Trust, The Academy of Medical Sciences, the Association of Medical Research Charities, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, and the Medical Research Council signed the statement. 

In their statement, they note that in some instances for research purposes, UK law allows for the use of gene editing tools on somatic and germ cells, including human embryos up to 14 days old. 

For clinical cases, germline editing poses ethical and regulator challenges "which need to be anticipated and explored in a timely and inclusive manner as the basic research proceeds and prior to any decisions about clinical applications," the organizations say. Such discussions should include a wide swath of stakeholders, including biomedical and social scientists, ethicists, healthcare professionals, research funders, regulators, affected patients and their families, and others. 

"Frameworks clearly demarcating research use of genome editing from potential clinical use, and carefully distinguishing use of somatic and germ cells, will ensure that the research community remains at the forefront of this novel area, while exploring the complex issues around different clinical applications in a robust and inclusive manner," the organizations say. 

Their call for more debate about human germline editing follows actions from others to ban such research. In April, scientists in China reported they used a CRISPR/Cas-9 method to edit non-viable human zygotes, creating a firestorm. That prompted both National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins and the White House to say they did not support the use of gene editing methods on human embryos.

In June a Congressional committee also moved to prevent federal funds from being used to even evaluate research on genetically modifying human embryos.

Others, however, say that human germline editing is probably inevitable and rules need to be put in place to make sure it is done responsibly.