WASHINGTON — A international committee formed by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine has issued a stamp of approval—with caution—regarding the concept of editing the genomes or germlines of unborn babies in the embryo stage in order to treat or prevent diseases.
“Genome editing is a powerful new tool for making precise additions, deletions and alterations to the genome—an organism’s complete set of of genetic material,” the 300-page report released on Tuesday outlined.
The concept involves adjusting the DNA of unborn babies in the early development stage in instances where they are believed to likely inherit a disease or disability from their parents.
The committee, composed of over 20 global experts on genetics, bioethics and medicine, noted that “possibilities [of the practice] range from restoring normal function in diseased organs by editing somatic cells to preventing genetic diseases in future children and their descendants by editing the human germline.”
However, while the committee concluded that the idea held promise, it stated that a genome editing clinical trial “might be permitted, but only following much more research” and “only for compelling reasons and under strict oversight.” It also recommended that the practice be limited to treating and preventing diseases.
“The committee recommends that genome editing for purposes other than treatment or prevention of disease and disability should not proceed at this time, and that it is essential for … public discussions to precede any decisions about whether or how to pursue clinical trials of such applications,” it wrote.
Even with its words of caution, the committee’s statements are considered a departure from the mindset of most scientists and ethicists, who have questioned the ethics of tweaking embryonic germlines.
Some have expressed concern that the practice could lead to the creation of “designer babies,” that is adjusting the DNA of the child to create desired traits, such as blue eyes, blond hair, and superb strength and intelligence.
Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society in Berkeley, California told Science Magazine, “We’re very disappointed with the report. It’s really a pretty dramatic shift from the existing and widespread agreement globally that human germline editing should be prohibited.”
“This opens the door to advertisements from fertility clinics of giving your child the best start in life with a gene-editing packet,” she also outlined to the New York Times. “And whether these are real advantages or perceived advantages, they would accrue disproportionately to people who are already advantaged.”
While genome editing, also known as CRISPR/Cas9, may be allowed in foreign nations, in 2015, Congress passed a law that bans the U.S. Food and Drug Administration from using federal funds for “research in which a human embryo is intentionally created or modified to include a heritable genetic modification.”
Any such offerings elsewhere, though, are believed to be far down the line, as stated by bioethicist R. Alta Charo, a co-chair on the committee: “It is not ready now, but it might be safe enough to try in the future. And if certain conditions are met, it might be permissible to try it.”