Scientists should be allowed to alter a person’s DNA to help prevent diseases or disabilities, a new report from two leading scientific institutions suggests.
By genetically editing human embryos, sperm, or eggs, scientists hope to stop diseases from being passed on to future generations.
The new report from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the U.S. National Academy of Medicine, completed a comprehensive review of gene editing.
“Human genome editing holds tremendous promise for understanding, treating, or preventing many devastating genetic diseases, and for improving treatment of many other illnesses,” said Alta Charo, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison who co-chaired the panel that wrote the report.
The 22-member panel was comprised of scientists from the U.S., France, Israel, China and Italy. One thing the panel members agreed upon is that genetically modifying babies should only be done for disease prevention.
“However, genome editing to enhance traits or abilities beyond ordinary health raises concerns about whether the benefits can outweigh the risks, and about fairness if available only to some people.”
The panel acknowledged skeptics who worry genetic editing could begin a trend for making designer babies, by altering traits and abilities such as beauty, strength and intelligence.
Enhancements such as making a person faster or taller should be strictly off limits, the report says. However, they hope to edit out a person’s DNA markup so that diseases such as sickle cell anemia, cystic fibrosis, cancer or Alzheimer’s, are avoided.
Scientists have looked at the feasibility of altering genes with a powerful technology known as CRISPR-Cas9, which can be programmed to precisely alter DNA at specific sequences.
The technology was developed four years ago, and has made altering genetic makeup of plants and animals easier than ever. And last year, Chinese scientists have experimented using it to treat lung cancer.
CRISPR-Cas9 has made gene editing much more straightforward, the report says, which paves the way for editing DNA in eggs, sperm and embryos much more realistic.
However, the scientists points out that the technology is not quite ready yet to justify altering DNA of humans. Instead, clinical trials should be allowed and conducted under public scrutiny, the report says. They acknowledge that regulations have to be in place to govern scientists from around the world and to prevent gene editing from being misused.
“Genome editing research is very much an international endeavor, and all nations should ensure that any potential clinical applications reflect societal values and be subject to appropriate oversight and regulation,” said MIT cancer researcher Richard O. Hynes, who also co-chaired the panel.
Public debate as well as long-term studies to understand the affects of gene editing should be in place to make sure we truly understand the consequences it may have on the future generation, the report says.
“These over-arching principles and the responsibilities that flow from them should be reflected in each nation’s scientific community and regulatory processes.Such international co-ordination would enhance consistency of regulation,” Hynes said.