The world is at an inflection point not unlike that which gave rise to the Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA in February 1975. That conference considered biohazards and published guidelines on what was then an emerging biotechnology field; these guidelines helped steer significant research for decades. Something of similar scope and power is needed for germline editing of genes in human embryos, sperm and eggs that can create changes to be passed through future generations. The technology of the method CRISPR-Cas9, in which genetic material can be edited quickly and cheaply, was used by Mr. He to manipulate an embryo to edit a gene. Ultimately, the amazing CRISPR technology may help conquer certain diseases and alleviate suffering, but it could be used recklessly and immorally.
A commentary in the journal Nature has called for a global, temporary moratorium on clinical uses of human germline editing, defined as “changing heritable DNA (in sperm, eggs or embryos) to make genetically modified children.” The moratorium could be hard to enforce, but it would offer a breather to sort out scientific and ethical issues. Among the authors of the essay is Nobel laureate Paul Berg, an emeritus professor of biochemistry at Stanford University, who helped organize Asimolar. The authors suggest that a goal might be some kind of international research framework. Genome editing ultimately can affect all humankind, but any regulation must be sensitive to individual nations and societies — not an easy task.
The Nature authors would permit research that does not involve the transfer of an embryo to a person’s uterus, and would permit genome editing in nonreproductive cells to treat diseases where the modifications are not heritable. But on the key issue of clinical use of germline editing around the world, they are worried. A 2015 international summit issued a statement that should have precluded such work, yet the authors note that Mr. He went ahead, and “scientists who were apparently aware of this work did not take adequate measures to stop it.”
Fortunately, the right organizations are now in motion. The U.S. National Academies and the British Royal Society have launched an international commission. The World Health Organization has created an advisory committee, too. We hope these efforts will find a consensus that can be accepted and enforced by the widest circle possible. The goal must be a framework that will enable genuine scientific advancement but avoid reckless fiddling with the source code of life. It is a tall order — and an urgent need.