Top scientists, including one of the creators of a genome-editing technique that alters human DNA, Thursday called for a self-imposed moratorium on the technique, saying they fear physicians will push ahead with its use in humans too soon.
"You could exert control over human heredity with this technique, and that is why we are raising the issue," said California Institute of Technology President Emeritus David Baltimore, a member of the group writing the paper for the journal Science
, reports The New York Times.
The new method, known by the acronym Crispr-Cas9, was invented by Jennifer Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley, and Emmanuelle Charpentier of Umea University in Sweden.
Doudna, who is director of UC Berkeley's Innovative Genomics Initiative, was lead author on the Science paper. She was joined by five current and two former UC Berkeley scientists, as well as Baltimore, a Nobel laureate; Stanford Nobel Prize winner Paul Berg and scientists from UC San Francisco, Stanford, Harvard, and the universities of Wisconsin and Utah, reports a statement from UC Berkeley
. Several of the papers' authors are currently involved in gene therapy work to cure inherited diseases.
Doudna confirmed the group supports the eventual use of Crispr to edit the DNA of human embryo cells if it is for scientific research, She confirmed that the group supports using it to edit the DNA of early-stage human embryos if it's for scientific research, reports MIT Technology Review
, and other scientists involved in the paper agree.
"Science should not be impeded in its earliest stages by concerns that improvements in, and validations of, certain parts of the technology are opening the door to eugenics,"said Berg, a professor emeritus at Stanford's medical school. He supports research aimed at "perfecting the technology in preparation for the time when society could sanction germline modification in medicine.”
(pronounced "crisper") can be used to cure genetic diseases, but also works to enhance other features, such as intelligence or beauty, and many ethicists believe it could lead to the creation of "designer babies."
The procedure works to alter the human germline, or sperm, eggs, or embryos,and ethicists fear such changes would not only affect the individual born as a result, but the changes could be passed on to other generations.
While some scientists think the prospect of genetically modifying humans is far away, it may actually be close. One year ago, Chinese researchers used Crispr to create monkeys whose DNA was edited, and since then, researchers in China, the United States and the United Kingdom have been using it to change the DNA of human cells under the consideration of using it in in vitro fertility clinics, MIT reported
earlier this month.
"Given the speed with which the genome engineering field is evolving, our group concluded that there is an urgent need for open discussion of the merits and risks of human genome modification by a broad cohort of scientists, clinicians, social scientists, the general public and relevant public entities and interest groups,"the scientists wrote in the Science paper released Thursday.
"It raises the most fundamental of issues about how we are going to view our humanity in the future and whether we are going to take the dramatic step of modifying our own germline and in a sense take control of our genetic destiny, which raises enormous peril for humanity," said Boston Children's Hospital stem cell expert George Q. Daley, a member of the group writing the article.
The biologists do support continuing research on the technique, which most scientists do not believe is ready for clinical use. The United States and Europe already have tight controls over such technology, but the paper's authors said they are concerned about other countries with less strict regulations.
"Scientists should avoid even attempting, in lax jurisdictions, germline genome modification for clinical application in humans," they said, until "scientific and governmental organizations" discuss the full implications.
Even if there is a moratorium, there would be no way to legally enforce it, The Times reports. Back in 1975, a similar request was made asking scientists to refrain from the recombinant DNA technique
for manipulating genes until more study was done on its consequences.
"We asked at that time that nobody do certain experiments, and in fact nobody did, to my knowledge," said Baltimore, who was also a member of the 1975 group. "So there is a moral authority you can assert from the U.S., and that is what we hope to do."
Recombinant DNA was the first in the step of series for manipulating DNA, but there has always been a problem when it comes to accuracy.
But Crispr works by co-opting the natural immune system, meaning scientists can instead use a guide sequence of their choice that destroys matching DNA sequences in any genome presented. However, the technique is efficient but not always accurate, and the mistargeting is one issue Doudna's group wants explored before human genomes are edited.
Further, Baltimore said there is worry about changes being made without the knowledge of what the changes could mean overall.
"I personally think we are just not smart enough — and won't be for a very long time — to feel comfortable about the consequences of changing heredity, even in a single individual," he said.
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