Concluding that “could” doesn’t equal “should,” a 12-member organizing committee at the International Summit on Human Gene Editing urged caution in the development and application of human genome editing. The “could” refers to the newfound genome-editing power afforded by CRISPR-Cas9 technology. The “should”—or rather the “should not”—refers more than anything else to the use of CRISPR-Cas9 in altering the human germline.
When the three-day Summit wrapped up its proceedings on December 3, the organizing committee issued a statement that said research into the biology of human embryos and germline cells would be acceptable, but not if edited cells of human embryos or altered germline cells were to be used to establish a pregnancy.
In the main, the organizing committee was composed of prominent scientific administrators and researchers. It also included two members who had legal and bioethics credentials. It was chaired by David Baltimore, Ph.D., president emeritus of the California Institute of Technology.
“The overriding question is when, if ever, we will want to use gene editing to change human inheritance,” said Dr. Baltimore, as quoted in the New York Times. “Everything I’ve learned here says we’re not ready to be doing this yet, and that we have to perfect the technologies and get a better consensus.”
Regardless, Dr. Baltimore added that important avenues of research should not be shut down. This sentiment was echoed by the organizing committee’s statement, which emphasized the uncertainties surrounding germline editing as follows:
“It would be irresponsible to proceed with any clinical use of germline editing unless and until the relevant safety and efficacy issues have been resolved…and there is broad societal consensus about the appropriateness of the proposed application. Moreover, any clinical use should proceed only under appropriate regulatory oversight. At present, these criteria have not been met for any proposed clinical use: the safety issues have not yet been adequately explored; the cases of most compelling benefit are limited; and many nations have legislative or regulatory bans on germline modification.”
In addition, the statement allowed that the advisability of clinical applications could be reconsidered in the light of changing circumstances: “[As] scientific knowledge advances and societal views evolve, the clinical use of germline editing should be revisited on a regular basis.”
The Summit, which was co-hosted by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the UK Royal Society, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, is the start of an information-gathering project that will contribute to a related effort and the creation of a report, scheduled to appear at the end of 2016.
The report, which is to be prepared by a committee assembled by the National Academy of Sciences, will “provide a framework based on fundamental, underlying principles that may be adapted and adopted by any nation that is considering the development of guidelines.” The report is also expected to include a focus on advice for the United States.