US Scientists Carefully Tread Ethics of Human Genome Editing

After careful consideration, the National Academy of Sciences has reached its conclusions on what is ethical and prudent in human genome editing and that which should not be tampered with, at least yet. In its 261-page report published Tuesday, February 14, 2017, the NAS issued guidelines for using genome-editing techniques.

The extensive report, developed in collaboration with the National Academy of Medicine, discussed considerations to be made by the National Institutes of Health and society as a whole about how far human gene-editing should proceed. The guidelines in the new report were developed through the input of 22 experts from multiple nations representing a variety of academic specialties.

As the science of human genome editing continues to grow and evolve, so are the ethics involving its use. One such change involves the use of gene-editing “for the purpose of establishing a pregnancy,” something that at the December 2015 gene-editing summit, the National Academy of Sciences said would be irresponsible to do. In this newest set of guidelines, the NAS advised that if and when such interventions could be proven to be safe, and careful criteria are followed to ensure such gene-editing would be both regulated and limited, the use of CRISPR/Cas9 and other techniques could prove useful in treating or eliminating genetic diseases.

The idea of “designer babies” used to be the stuff of science fiction, but like so many other concepts first conjured in the minds of imaginative thinkers is on the cusp of becoming a reality using the recently developed CRISPR/Cas9, TALEN, ZFNS and engineered nucleases techniques. Using these techniques, scientists have been able to “cut and paste” or splice portions of human DNA in a precise fashion never before possible.

While the guidelines determined by the scientists are based on logic, their actual use may be difficult for the medical community and the public-at-large to embrace given some of the ethical dilemmas that will need to be faced.

Research ethics are not limited to genetic science and are the subject of widespread debate in and out of the scientific community:

Are Scientific Research and Ethics Mutually Exclusive?

Without Ethics in Research, Who Would Stop Frankenstein?

What Can Be Achieved With Human Genome Editing – and What Should Be?

  • Already researchers are working on better understanding human cells and their genes, from somatic cells – cells that are outside of the reproductive realm – and germline cells – eggs or sperm. The NAS report indicated that because this type of research has been ongoing for decades, although to a more precise manner since the inception of the newest gene-editing techniques, there are sufficient guidelines in place to govern the practices both practically and ethically.
  • Editing germline cells and embryos to prevent genetic diseases. This is the slippery slope that NAS and the other scientists involved in the newest set of guidelines for gene-editing have changed their thinking, but in the United States, federal agencies are currently prohibited from approving an embryo gene-editing. In other parts of the world, scientists are moving forward in this area. Their successes and failures may contribute to a change in the United States’ own regulations in this area.

Related Reading: Biologists Attempt Editing Genes in Human Embryos

  • In the area of “designer babies” – those whose embryonic genes could potentially be edited to enhance certain traits such as intelligence or physical features, the panel advises that any such advances, other than for the treatment or prevention of disease not be considered at this time.

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