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Scientists Back Temporary Global Ban on Gene-Edited Babies

A group of scientists & ethicists is calling for a temporary global ban on making babies with edited genes.

Published
Health News
3 min read
An international group of scientists and ethicists is calling for a temporary global ban on making babies with edited genes.
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An international group of scientists and ethicists is calling for a temporary global ban on making babies with edited genes.

It's the latest reaction to last November's announcement that gene-edited twins had been born in China.

The demand for a moratorium in the journal Nature follows the universal anger over He Jianku's revelation at an international summit on genome editing late last year.

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The scientist from Shenzhen claimed to have altered the genes of twin baby girls to enable them to resist future HIV infection.

The gene editing occurred during IVF, or laboratory dish fertilization. Seven couples took part in the experiment and there was one pregnancy.

There was immediate condemnaton from He Jianku's peers.

At the time George Daley the Dean of Harvard Medical School argued:

There’s certainly more acceptance of the use (of genome editing) for alleviating disease, alleviating suffering. But what about just disease risks? And what about traits that we might call enhancements? Should this be a technology that we use to affect a child’s ultimate height, their skin colour?

Professor Richard Hynes from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was not convinced of the reason He Jianku carried out the procedure: "He didn't answer properly most of the questions. In particular, the questions about why was this worth doing, was there any medical basis for doing it?

Professor David Liu of Harvard University described it as: "It's an appalling example of what not to do with a new technology that has incredible potential to benefit society."

Professor Liu's salary is paid by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which also supports The Associated Press Health & Science Department.

The gene editing was done using a tool called CRISPR - CAS9. It works by making a cut in the DNA to disable a specific gene.

This is how CRISPR works:

  • CRISPR stands for Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats
  • CRISPR is a technique to precisely edit a cell's DNA
  • It uses a two-part molecular tool
  • Cas9 is a protein that can make cuts in DNA
  • The guide RNA contains a sequence that matches the target DNA
  • The guide DNA directs the Cas9 protein to the target DNA
  • The Cas9 protein unzips the target DNA
  • And the guide RNA binds to the matching sequence
  • When the match is complete, Cas9 makes a cut in the DNA
  • At that point, scientists can edit or disable

After He Jianku's revelation researchers became concerned that if the science is not considered ready or safe enough, it will create misunderstanding, disagreement and distrust among the people it is supposed to help.

Now 18 researchers from seven countries have published a commentary in the journal Nature. They want a temporary ban on research designed to produce a baby from sperm, eggs or embryos that bear altered DNA.

Roughly 30 nations already prohibit making babies from such "germline" gene editing. It's essentially banned in the U.S.

The moratorium would allow time for discussion of technical, scientific, societal and ethical issues that must be considered, according to the researchers.

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Among the proposals: Individual nations should pledge to block such research for a specific period, perhaps five years. After that, country nation could decide on its own about what to allow, but only after taking steps like providing public notice, joining international discussions about the pros and cons, and determining whether its citizens support proceeding with such gene editing.

The authors called for an international coordinating body, perhaps organized under the World Health Organization.

In January a Chinese state media report said investigators had determined that the doctor behind the reported birth of two babies whose genes had been edited in hopes of making them resistant to the AIDS virus acted on his own and will be punished for any violations of the law.

A briefing by China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs a week later considered the issue finished with the spokeman saying: "Regarding Professor He Jiankui's experiment of gene-edited babies, I refer you to the competent department. I noted that the relevant department has put out the investigation result, I refer you to go over that."

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