Eighteen researchers have called for a temporary ban on the gene editing of babies. The authors of this statement include two pioneers in CRISPR. That’s the primary gene-editing tool.
“We call for a global moratorium” on changing the genes in sperm, eggs or embryos “to make genetically modified children,” say the researchers. They come from seven nations and presented their proposal in the March 14 Nature.
First, they argue, editing may not be safe enough yet. But another big worry is that changes to sperm, eggs and embryos can later be inherited by the children of the treated individuals. When such tweaks can be inherited, that might lead to human tinkering of our evolution. And any decision to do that should not be placed in the hands of a single doctor, researcher or institution, the researchers argue.
In polls, many Americans say they support this type of editing to correct diseases. But most people think it would be wrong to boost intelligence or to make a child more athletic or attractive. Such enhanced people are often called “designer babies.” Many people fear that designer babies would have an unfair advantage over other people.
Feng Zhang works in Cambridge, Mass., at the Broad Institute of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He led a team that was the first to report editing genes in human cells grown in a lab dish. Yet he signed onto the new statement. So did Emmanuelle Charpentier at the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens in Berlin, Germany. She was part of a team that published the first study describing CRISPR/Cas9 as a gene-editing tool.
The proposed ban would be temporary. About five years might be long enough, the researchers say. This would buy time for scientists to further test and refine CRISPR/Cas9 and other gene-editing tools. This could not only make these tools safer but also allow time for public education and debate about the technology and its potential impacts.
The ban would not be a law. Each country would instead pledge not to allow trials inside its borders that would create gene-edited children. Each nation also would decide how long its ban would last.
Gene editing of embryos, eggs and sperm would still be allowed in research. What would not be allowed: implanting those cells or tissues in a woman to establish a pregnancy.
Researchers could still use CRISPR/Cas9 and other gene-altering techniques to treat disease in people. However, those treatments could happen only if the gene changes could not be inherited.
Not everyone agrees, however, that a ban is needed. An advisory committee to the World Health Organization, in Geneva, Switzerland, has another proposal. It would like to see the creation of some global registry listing all projects on human gene editing. Such a database would provide transparency. By that it means no one would be caught off guard by something like the announcement, last year, that a researcher had just gene edited babies.
Such a registry might also lead to a better understanding of the state of gene-editing science. Or that’s what representatives of the WHO committee said in a March 19 news conference.
A reaction to rogue scientists
The new proposed ban is not the first time researchers and ethics experts have argued against the tweaking of genes that can be inherited.
The topic came up in a 2017 report that had been requested by the U.S. National Academies of Sciences and Medicine (NAS). It also was raised in international conferences on gene editing in humans. One took place in 2015. The other was last year. All three forums concluded it’s too early to alter human genes that can be inherited. In fact, they called the idea “irresponsible.” Such treatments should wait until the technology improves and wins broad public approval, they argued.
The big difference between those statements and the new one is the word “moratorium,” says R. Alta Charo. She works at the University of Wisconsin–Madison Law School. As a bioethicist, she studies issues of social values — such as whether something might be considered right or wrong — in activities involving biology. The ban proposers and the summit reports are saying basically the same thing. They just differ by that one word. “There is no real daylight, only a dictionary,” between what the two groups of scientists are saying, Charo says.
Still, none of those earlier warnings stopped Chinese scientist Jiankui He. He edited DNA in embryos that resulted in the birth of two baby girls last year. Another woman was reportedly pregnant with a gene-edited baby at the time. Back then, some researchers knew about He’s plans but did not stop him.
Despite big conferences calling the gene editing of babies irresponsible, this type of experiment went ahead, notes Paul Berg. He’s a Nobel prize winner and molecular geneticist in California at the Stanford University School of Medicine. “Clucking” about the experiments being irresponsible isn’t enough, he now argues. Clearly, he says, “We needed to say a little bit more and actually call for a moratorium.”
Berg, an author of the new proposal, admits the proposed ban is mostly a matter of new phrasing. Still, he says, word choices matter. “If everyone is saying it would be irresponsible to do it, then why not be explicit and say it should not be done?” he asks.
Will a voluntary ban matter?
The head of NAS, in Washington, D.C., published a letter in support of a voluntary ban. So did the head of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, in Bethesda, Md., and the Royal Society of Science in London, England. All of these appear in the same issue of Nature.
Other scientists say they support a ban, but they aren’t sure it will stop rogue scientists from still doing what He did. There’s no harm in using the word “moratorium,” says Stephan Guttinger. He’s a philosopher of biology in England at the London School of Economics and Political Science. However, he adds, “I don’t think someone will say: ‘Oh, someone said moratorium. I really can’t do that now.’”
Russ Altman is a bioengineer and geneticist at Stanford University in California. It may be easier to get a moratorium to stick, he says, now that He’s work has gotten so much negative attention. “Now a ban will have a bigger weight of scientific credibility,” he suspects. And that, he thinks, means it “would be more likely to be obeyed.”
Argues Altman, if countries agree to a voluntary ban, it would still have “the force of moral authority” — even if it doesn’t have legal weight of law.
Even some notable researchers, however, have doubts about the wisdom of calling for even a voluntary ban. Nobel laureate David Baltimore is among them. He is president emeritus of the California Institute of Technology, in Pasadena. A virologist and immunologist, he chaired the two big international conferences on human gene editing. Recommendations from those conferences “avoided using the term moratorium,” on purpose, he says. Why? “Because,” he notes, “that word has been associated with very firm rules about what you can do and what you can’t do.”
By calling for a ban, he says, “The idea gets fixed in people’s minds that we’re making firm statements about what we don’t want to do and for how long we don’t want to do it.” Yet when the science of gene editing is “moving forward as rapidly as this science is, you want to be able to adapt to new discoveries, new opportunities and new understandings.” So, while Baltimore, too, believes it is too early to tinker with genes that can be inherited by people, “To make rules [about that] is probably not a good idea.”
Editor’s note: Feng Zhang is a member of the board of trustees of Society for Science and the Public, an educational nonprofit in Washington, D.C., that also publishes Science News for Students.
bioengineer Someone who applies engineering to solve problems in biology or in systems that will use living organisms.
biology The study of living things. The scientists who study them are known as biologists.
Cas9 An enzyme that geneticists are now using to help edit genes. It can cut through DNA, allowing it to fix broken genes, splice in new ones or disable certain genes. Cas9 is shepherded to the place it is supposed to make cuts by CRISPRs, a type of genetic guides. The Cas9 enzyme came from bacteria. When viruses invade a bacterium, this enzyme can chop up the germs DNA, making it harmless.
cell The smallest structural and functional unit of an organism. Typically too small to see with the unaided eye, it consists of a watery fluid surrounded by a membrane or wall. Depending on their size, animals are made of anywhere from thousands to trillions of cells. Most organisms, such as yeasts, molds, bacteria and some algae, are composed of only one cell.
CRISPR An abbreviation — pronounced crisper — for the term “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.” These are pieces of RNA, an information-carrying molecule. They are copied from the genetic material of viruses that infect bacteria. When a bacterium encounters a virus that it was previously exposed to, it produces an RNA copy of the CRISPR that contains that virus’ genetic information. The RNA then guides an enzyme, called Cas9, to cut up the virus and make it harmless. Scientists are now building their own versions of CRISPR RNAs. These lab-made RNAs guide the enzyme to cut specific genes in other organisms. Scientists use them, like a genetic scissors, to edit — or alter — specific genes so that they can then study how the gene works, repair damage to broken genes, insert new genes or disable harmful ones.
database An organized collection of related data.
DNA (short for deoxyribonucleic acid) A long, double-stranded and spiral-shaped molecule inside most living cells that carries genetic instructions. It is built on a backbone of phosphorus, oxygen, and carbon atoms. In all living things, from plants and animals to microbes, these instructions tell cells which molecules to make.
egg The unfertilized reproductive cell made by females.
embryo The early stages of a developing organism, or animal with a backbone, consisting only one or a few cells. As an adjective, the term would be embryonic — and could be used to refer to the early stages or life of a system or technology.
ethics (adj. ethical) A code of conduct for how people interact with others and their environment. To be ethical, people should treat others fairly, avoid cheating or dishonesty in any form and avoid taking or using more than their fair share of resources (which means, to avoid greed). Ethical behavior also would not put others at risk without alerting people to the dangers beforehand and having them choose to accept the potential risks. Experts who work in this field are known as ethicists.
evolution (v. to evolve) A process by which species undergo changes over time, usually through genetic variation and natural selection. These changes usually result in a new type of organism better suited for its environment than the earlier type. The newer type is not necessarily more “advanced,” just better adapted to the particular conditions in which it developed.
gene A segment of DNA that codes, or holds instructions, for a cell’s production of a protein. Offspring inherit genes from their parents. Genes influence how an organism looks and behaves.
gene editing The deliberate introduction of changes to genes by researchers.
genetic Having to do with chromosomes, DNA and the genes contained within DNA. The field of science dealing with these biological instructions is known as genetics. People who work in this field are geneticists.
moral An adjective that refers to a code of behavior that aspires to do what’s right (not wrong) and to treat others as you would hope they would treat you.
National Institutes of Health (or NIH) This is the largest biomedical research organization in the world. A part of the U.S. government, it consists of 21 separate institutes — such as the National Cancer Institute and the National Human Genome Research Institute — and six additional centers. Most are located on a 300 acre facility in Bethesda, Md., a campus containing 75 buildings. The institutes employ nearly 6,000 scientists and provide research funding to more than 300,000 additional researchers working at more than 2,500 other institutions around the world.
pathogen An organism that causes disease.
politics (adj. political) The activities of people charged with governing towns, states, nations or other groups of people. It can involve deliberations over whether to create or change laws, the setting of policies for governed communities, and attempts to resolve conflicts between people or groups that want to change rules or taxes or the interpretation of laws. The people who take on these tasks as a job (profession) are known as politicians.
political science A social science that deals with the governing of people, largely by elected officials and governments.
primary An adjective meaning major, first or most important.
sperm The reproductive cell produced by a male animal (or, in plants, produced by male organs). When one joins with an egg, the sperm cell initiates fertilization. This is the first step in creating a new organism.
summit (in public policy) A meeting between officials of some organization or governments, often with the goal of negotiating new rules, policies or treaties.
technology The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry — or the devices, processes and systems that result from those efforts.
tissue Made of cells, it is any of the distinct types of materials that make up animals, plants or fungi. Cells within a tissue work as a unit to perform a particular function in living organisms. Different organs of the human body, for instance, often are made from many different types of tissues.
virologist A researcher who studies viruses and the diseases they cause.
World Health Organization, or WHO An agency of the United Nations, established in 1948, to promote health and to control communicable diseases. It is based in Geneva, Switzerland. The United Nations relies on the WHO for providing international leadership on global health matters. This organization also helps shape the research agenda for health issues and sets standards for pollutants and other things that could pose a risk to health. WHO also regularly reviews data to set policies for maintaining health and a healthy environment.
Statement: WHO Advisory Committee on Developing Global Standards for Governance and Oversight of Human Genome Editing. WHO-RUSH Human genome editing 1st advisory committee VPC. News conference, March 19, 2019.
Journal: E. Lander et al. Adopt a moratorium on heritable genome editing. Nature. Vol. 567, March 14, 2019, p. 165. doi:10.1038/d41586-019-00726-5.