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Germline Genome Editing Debate

Researchers from Sangamo BioSciences, the Alliance for Regenerative Medicine, and elsewhere called in a Nature commentary last week for a halt to any use of genome-editing tools to alter the human germline. They argued that "[g]enome editing in human embryos using current technologies could have unpredictable effects on future generations," and that public outcry from any misuse of these techniques could spill over to affect non-germline, therapeutic use of such tools.

There are, according to New Scientist, reports that groups in China and the US have already begun such work, and Technology Review recently examined early germline engineering projects. Both New Scientist and Tech Review note that some countries ban the work and that many professional societies have said it is too risky.

In its explainer, New Scientist notes that the rather new CRISPR engineering system has made it easier, cheaper, and more efficient to edit genomes, and that studies in monkeys have indicated that the risk of worrisome off-target effects is low.

Another worry is that such editing could lead to so-called 'designer babies,' though New Scientist says the likelihood of parents opting to go through a risky IVF process just to, for example, ensure a blue-eyed child is low.

"And it is of course possible to allow germline editing for disease prevention while banning it for other purposes," it adds. "It would be hard for anyone who broke the ban to get away with it, given that genetic tests could reveal whether a child's DNA has been altered."