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Gene Editing: Hope, Hype, and Caution

by Daniel CallahanThe Hastings Center Bioethics Forum
December 8th, 2015

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It was great scientific research that first noted and then carefully followed the steady and dangerous increase of carbon emissions in the atmosphere. It was no less part of the greatness of the research that it weathered its own uncertainty and the organized attacks by those who did not want to hear the bad news. Yet just as the U.N. climate conference was getting underway in Paris, a less noticed scientific event in Washington had reached a conclusion of comparable impact for our human future.

On December 3 the National Academy of Sciences released a statement issued by the International Summit on Human Gene Editing. That Summit brought together representatives of the U.S. Academy, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the Royal Society of the U.K. The incentive for the Summit was the development of a new means of gene editing with a technology called CRISPR-Cas9, and research in China using gene editing on human embryos. In the words of the statement gene editing is a technique for “precisely altering genetic sequences in living cells, including those of humans,” with greater “accuracy and efficiency than ever before possible.” That possibility is both thrilling and deeply unsettling.

The organizing committee concluded its meeting with three recommendations. It supported the continuance of basic and preclinical research, examining the potential benefits and underlying biology of editing genetic sequences of living cells, including human cells. It also supported the clinical use of editing somatic cells, that is, those cells that are not passed along to the next generation (useful for cancer research). It called, however, for no one to begin clinical use of gene editing in human gametes or embryos, the germline, where “the cells of a resulting child would be passed on to subsequent generations as part of the human gene pool,” until more is known about it and there is a clearer consensus. 

The committee presented a number of reasons for a moratorium on the clinical use of germline editing and proposed some standards by which to determine when the research might begin.  Safety, societal consensus on proposed applications, and a balancing of risks and benefits were high on its list; all in all, very tough standards. For the basic and somatic cell research it assumed a continuation of standing government oversight and regulation policies. In that respect the freedom of science has always had some limitations. But they have been imposed after the research has been pursued, bearing on its social impact not on the process itself.

A precedent for the moratorium on editing the human germline was established in 1975 when a group of leading scientists and others at the California Asilomar conference declared a voluntary moratorium on another form of genetic research, that of recombinant DNA. It was a technique for combining DNA–the hereditary material–from different organisms. The focus of the moratorium was not on the social implications of the research but on its possible dangers. One of the moratorium leaders was Paul Berg, himself a researcher on the technique and a future Nobel laureate. The leader of the genome editing moratorium is David Baltimore, also a Nobel laureate and, with Berg, part of the Asilomar effort as well.  

While the Asilomar moratorium was a success in its own terms, slowing the recombinant research for a time–but also unearthing no serious dangers–it left a bad taste in the mouths of other genetic investigators and those opposed to any strong control of research in progress, that is, before its results are known and evaluated. James D. Watson, whose work with Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA–setting the stage for the recombinant DNA breakthrough as well as the recent CRISPR-Cas9 work—said in 1999 of the Asilomar moratorium that “the moral I draw from this painful episode is that [we should] never postpone experiments that have clearly defined future benefits for fear of dangers that can’t be quantified.” He specifically singled out support for germline therapy for therapeutic purposes that “might redirect the course of future human evolution.” More recently, Steven Pinker, a prominent Harvard research scientist, commented on the CRISPR-cas9 research, almost perfectly echoing Watson when he said that “a truly ethical bioethics should not thwart research that has likely benefits now or in the future by sowing panic about speculative harms in the distant future . . . even a one-year delay . . . could spell death, suffering, or disability for millions of people.”

Yet these statements reveal a double standard: speculative harms are treated as fear mongering while speculative benefits are allowed to run wild. The law of the scientific hype-land seems to be that the research imperative of the endless war on disease must be pursued even in the face of danger. Allegedly soft moral reasons and nervous speculation about possible hazards are simply dismissed. But those who have called for moratoriums, in the 1970s and now in 2015, are fully aware of the possible benefits of research. That is why they have pursued it.  By their willingness to suspend some lines of research they have shown a resolve not to be carried away by hype, and to seriously examine risks and benefits, however much that will restrict their own research. The common good of those who will gain or lose by research–that is, the rest of us–is a higher gain than an unfettered embrace of a research imperative. It is to the credit of those scientists and others working to control global warming that they have never failed to warn us of the costs, economic and social, of that crusade, not just the benefits. We should welcome those genetic researchers willing to do the same.

Daniel Callahan is President Emeritus of The Hastings Center and author of the forthcoming book, The Five Horsemen of the Modern World: Climate, Food, Water, Chronic Disease, and Obesity.

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