National Academies: Germline Editing Should be Permitted

An international committee says scientists should be allowed to modify human embryos as long as strict oversight criteria are met. 

By | February 15, 2017


While new gene editing tools like CRISPR/Cas9 have made it easier to modify the genome, whether scientists should be permitted to modify human embryos is a hotly debated subject. One of the biggest concerns is the possibility of passing genetic modifications down to futures generations. Yesterday (February 14), a committee of experts appointed by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the National Academy of Medicine released a report that broadly supports human germline editing, but only with substantial oversight.

In 2015, NAS organized a summit to discuss the ethics of embryo editing in response to the controversial study published by a Chinese group that attempted to use CRISPR/Cas9 to edit disease genes in embryos. At the time, the Organizing Committee released a statement saying that, “It would be irresponsible to proceed with any clinical use of germline editing unless and until the relevant safety and efficacy issues have been resolved.” That spurred the NAS to form an international committee of researchers, lawyers and ethicists to draw up a report on the scientific and ethical issues around editing the human genome.

The committee came to the conclusion that human embryo editing is acceptable when it can help prevent a baby from inheriting genes known to cause series medical conditions, such as Huntington’s disease and cystic fibrosis, and when there are no other “reasonable alternatives.” The report also recommended that genome editing should not be used for enhancing human traits, such as physical strength or intelligence.

“It’s a very careful, conservative position that’s just a little bit beyond an absolute bar,” Eric Lander, president of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, who was not a part of the committee, told the Washington Post. “And I think that’s the right place to go for now.”

Others, however, feel the committee’s conclusions are far too permissive. “We’re very disappointed with the report,” Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society in Berkeley, California, told Science. “It’s really a pretty dramatic shift from the existing and widespread agreement globally that human germline editing should be prohibited,”

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Avatar of: PastToTheFuture


Posts: 94

February 15, 2017

I have a question about this. Why? It seems uneconomical to me. I think there is a far better, more economical way. Correct me if I get anything wrong, because I've been scratching my head about something I read on this.

I assume we are talking about using CRISPR, to "help prevent a baby from inheriting genes known to cause series medical conditions," 

So, consider this process... loosely speaking, (1) harvest eggs from the mother, (2) fertilize them, (3) sequence them to analyze the genetic state, (4) develop/use a CRISPR molecule that can change that problem allele/sequence, (5) do the CRISPR process, (6) sequence them again to make sure it worked right, (7) then implant the zygote. Sounds good to me... except for a two things.

First off, why not instead  (1) harvest eggs from the mother, (2) fertilize them, (3) sequence them to analyze the genetic state, (4) select a zygote that is not carrying that gene for cystic fibrosis/Huntington’s/Broka/etc., (7) then implant the zygote. Isn't that much simpler and cheaper? 

You have two cases - a medical problem that occurs in the heterozygous condition and in the homozygous condition. One that occurs in the heterozygous case, could be removed by simple selection in one generation, because of only one parent had it, only half of the zygotes would have it and only one quarter of the zygotes if both parents carried it. If it is a condition that occurs only in the homozygous state, then it would take two generations to remove it, but it could be neutralized (made heterozygous) in the first generation.

There is far more reason for this approach... I'm quoting a book here called Genetics For A New Human Ecology -

The author's perspective is two fold on this. First, CRISPR is not likely to help with larger copy errors such as caused by de novo mutations. Really though he has a far more compelling reason. He makes the point that older parents (mainly the mother) means there will be far more de novo mutations. At the same time there has been a huge reduction in natural selection due to a number of factors including medicine, vaccines and especially reduced family size. He argues for promoting large scale pre-natal artificial selection to replace the natural selection that has been removed. CRISPR could never compensate for the genetic problems that natural selection handles in a normal state... at least not economically practically.

The genetic considerations are very complete, even though he says he carefully wrote it to not be technical, because he points out that this is going to effect everyone. He calls it a change in ecology, which puts it an interesting perspective of adaptation as well. He frames the discussion in moral terms too, which is unusual, but seems like a good idea in this day and age. The book is well laid out and very very short, but quite original and compelling. It's something like an hour read. I think it a very original view and well worth a read.

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