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Time to Talk

The US National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine plan to convene an international summit this fall to discuss the scientific, ethical, and policy issues regarding the use of gene-editing technology like CRISPR on the human germline, Reuters reports. GenomeWeb also covers the announcement here.

Researchers from Sangamo BioSciences, the Alliance for Regenerative Medicine, and elsewhere had called in March in Nature for a moratorium on any work involving genome editing of the human germline. They argued that the tools were still too unpredictable to be used safely and ethically, and said they were concerned about how its use for therapeutic reasons could slide over into non-therapeutic use.

The ethical debate only intensified last month when researchers from Sun-Yat Sen University reported in Protein & Cell that they applied the CRISPR/Cas9 approach to modify the beta-thalassemia gene in non-viable human zygotes.

With this summit, NAS and IOM hope to spur the development of standards, guidelines, and practices for the use of gene-editing technologies for both biomedical research and medicine.

"We provided leadership in the past on emerging, controversial new areas of genetic research, such as human embryonic stem cell research [and] human cloning," say NAS President Ralph Cicerone and IOM President Victor Dzau in a joint statement. "We are prepared to work with the scientific and medical communities to achieve a comprehensive understanding of human gene editing and its implications."

"I am delighted that the NAS and the NAM are leading a discussion of these important issues," Jennifer Doudna from the University of California, Berkeley, and CRISPR pioneer tells Nature News. Doudna has also called for discussion of the ethics of editing the human genome.

"This is indeed the kind of response we hoped to trigger," she adds. "Whether a larger or more public forum is needed depends on how the initiative proceeds."