Considering CRISPR: Putting a thumb on the scale?

Biopolitical Times
An illustrated image of a hand placing two fingers on a scale. On one side of the scale, are DNA strands. The other side of the scale is empty. Below the scale are silhouettes of the 7 continents of the world.

The National Academies of Sciences and of Medicine have announced the date for their closely watched and long-awaited International Summit on Human Gene Editing: December 1–3, in Washington, DC.

Officially co-hosting will be the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the UK Royal Society. No other European organization is included as a partner, despite (or perhaps because of) the region’s explicit policies on human germline modification as set forth by the Council of Europe’s Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine, which proscribes it.

A German scientist is, however, a member of the planning committee. The UK and China each have two representatives on the committee.

The explicit goal of the "international summit" is "to discuss the scientific, medical, ethical, and governance issues associated with human gene-editing research." Though the meeting is only ten weeks away, the details of the agenda and the invited speakers have not been announced. CGS’s Marcy Darnovsky has been invited to speak, and has accepted.

It is perhaps interesting that the word "medical" has been added to the list of issues since the original announcement. It's not inappropriate, but the addition would seem to skew the discussion in the direction of implementation. Also, what will be the scope of the "ethical issues" discussed? Worryingly, a recent Institute of Medicine committee considering a related technique seemed to limit them to narrowly defined research ethics, and not to consider broader social issues.

Naturally, people with varying views are staking out positions and trying to persuade others. George Church is campaigning in New Scientist; and others on all sides of the issue are, quite rightly, putting their views forward.

On September 1, the Wellcome Trust, Medical Research Council, and three other leading British research organizations put out a statement supporting preclinical use of gene editing in human embryos and affirming

that there may be future potential to apply genome editing in a clinical context using human germ cells or embryos, though this is prohibited by law in the UK and unlikely to be permissible in other European jurisdictions at present.

Then the Hinxton Group, an international consortium of stem cell researchers, essentially agreed. Its statement stressed [pdf] that

Policymakers should refrain from constraining scientific inquiry unless there is substantial justification for doing so that reaches beyond disagreements based solely on divergent moral convictions.

Critics called this increasing the pressure for genetically modified embryos. It certainly seems close to "get out of the way."

So far, so normal in the politics of science. But the next step was unusual: Kathy Niakan, a researcher at the Francis Crick Institute in London, applied to the UK authorities for a license to edit the genes of human embryos.

But why now? Arthur Caplan made the relevant point that:

I'm not sure the case has been made that you need to go and study human embryos right now. It does seem to me that before you make the case that you want to try this in human embryos, you ought to explain why you don't need to do more animal work with this brand-new technology.

That’s going to be true for quite a while yet. So with the discussion of germline gene editing just getting underway, why the rush?

Robin Lovell-Badge, one of the two British representatives on the National Academies' summit organizing committee, seems to have been involved in all three of these efforts. He's Naikan's boss, and advocate in the press; he's on the steering committee of the group that drafted the Hinxton statement; and his connections with the Wellcome Trust are long-standing and deep. Certainly all three initiatives match his opinion, expressed in April, that:

I disagree with such a moratorium [on embryo editing], which is in any case unlikely to be effective. I am fully supportive of research being carried out on early human embryos in vitro…The arguments become even more contentious when dealing with 'enhancement'. However, while we work towards using the methods to make disease-resistant crops and animals, should we deny this possibility for humans?

He is of course entitled to express that opinion, as he surely will in December. But does it begin to look as though there is an effort to put a thumb on the scale?

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Original composite image via Pixabay