The Science and Ethics of Genetically Engineered Human DNA

Biopolitical Times
Court house hearing

Discussion of germline genetic modification continues, most recently in the House of Representatives Research and Technology Subcommittee, Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. The Subcommittee's June 16 hearing gives this post its title. Video is available, as are pdfs of the four witness statements.

Victor J. Dzau, President of the Institute of Medicine (soon to be the National Academy of Medicine) outlined the plans for the Academies Initiative. There will be two parts to this:

  • a global summit to examine recent scientific developments in human gene editing and the range of associated ethical and governance issues
  • a concurrent expert committee to conduct a comprehensive study on human gene-editing research

The exact date of the global summit, which will be held in "late fall," has not yet been announced, and the study, which may take a year, does not yet have a final "statement of task." The day before the hearing the advisory group for the initiative was announced. The 14 members include six of the 18 signatories of the March paper in Science that called for a moratorium (including David Baltimore, Paul Berg and Jennifer Doudna; notable omissions include George Church and Hank Greely) but none of the 5 authors of the stronger Nature paper. All but two members are American, the exceptions being Robin Lovell-Badge (UK) and Xu Zhihong (China).

The other witnesses at the Subcommittee hearing were Doudna, who gave a brief overview [pdf] of gene editing and its possible applications; Elizabeth McNally, who notably included [pdf] the perspective of families who might want to apply such technologies; and Jeffrey Kahn, whose presentation [pdf] included a useful overview of US regulatory mechanisms but seemed to overlook previous international agreements that might serve as models.

The meeting was well attended and the subcommittee members seemed engaged in the topic, if somewhat unclear how best to proceed.

Away from Capitol Hill, there have been some other noteworthy developments:

  • Eric Lander wrote a thoughtful perspective in the New England Journal of Medicine, concluding that (except possibly for a few severe monogenic diseases) for the foreseeable future germline editing should be banned.
  • Margaret Somerville in the Toronto Globe and Mail raised questions of eugenics and a society of the "gene rich" and "gene poor," and expressed strong disagreement with Steven Pinker.
  • The Lancet editorially endorsed the Academies initiatives.
  • CIRM, the California Stem Cell agency, will hold a "public workshop" on November 3 in the Los Angeles area, to see if these "red hot" developments might require a change in their policies.
  • CGS and others have cautiously welcomed the Note on Genome Editing from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, but critics from the National Review and the Center for Bioethics and Culture  complained that it was "the usual yadda, yadda, yadda" and would actually open the door to germline interventions.

Meanwhile, research continues. CRISPR has been used experimentally on the hepatitis B virus, and also applied to zebrafish. Agriculturalists are actively discussing genome editing in animals, to make them resistant to disease and other threats from climate change.

Nature News published a good overview of "CRISPR, the disruptor." Next Big Future has a useful comparison of the costs and benefits of using CRISPR rather than Zinc Fingers or TALENs. Finally, Reuters published a thought-provoking report, inspired by the (failed) attempt to modify human embryos, titled:

China's big biotech bet starting to pay off

Previously on Biopolitical Times: