Talking About the Germline

Biopolitical Times
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The debate about heritable human genetic modification continues, with opinions ranging from enthusiasm to dismay, and strong arguments for political as well as scientific involvement. Among the notable contributions in the last few weeks are the following. Jacob Corn, Scientific Director of the Innovative Genomics Initiative (IGI), which is “dedicated to the enhancement and proliferation of genome editing research and technology in both the academic and commercial research communities” in the San Francisco Bay Area wrote a blog post (July 6) that stated categorically:

At this time, the IGI Lab will not do research on human germline editing for several reasons, including: 1. The IGI Lab is focusing on diseases for which somatic (non-heritable) editing would be a transformative advance. … 2. Cas9 technology is currently too nascent for me to consider germline editing wise. …

Corn was an organizer of the Napa meeting that led to the call in Science for a moratorium. CRISPR pioneer Jennifer Doudna is IGI’s Executive Director. Critics may point to the phrase “at this time” as a wiggle or loophole, but he is specifying a moratorium even on research, not just applications. We may not see any stronger statements from major researchers in the field ahead of the National Academies meeting, which Corn says is slated for October. 

Daniel Sarewitz, co-director and co-founder of the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes at Arizona State University, made the important point in Nature (June 23) that weighing up the benefits and risks of gene editing and artificial intelligence is a political endeavour, not an academic one: "Science can’t solve it.”

Also in Nature (June 24), science and technology studies scholar Charis Thompson deplored the simplistically gendered nature of much of the discussion and urged a balanced approach aiming for “better science and better ethics.”   

Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives have started to weigh in, via the appropriations process. That could be a worrying sign of political polarization. But on the Democratic side, Rep. Bill Foster, who describes himself (accurately) as “the last scientist with a Ph.D. remaining in Congress,” has also expressed serious concern. Writing in The Hill, he issued a warning about the implications of fundamentally changing the course of human evolution: 

We are on the verge of a technological breakthrough that could change the future of humankind; we must not blindly charge ahead. Now is the time to engage in serious and thoughtful discussion about what this means for the future of the human race.

Another commentary, by Craig Holdrege at the Nature Institute, discussed (June 22) “unforeseen effects” and unintended consequences, and strongly endorsed MIT and Whitehead Institute geneticist Rudolph Jaenisch’s view that “it is unacceptable to mutate normal embryos. For me, that means there is no application [of this technique in human embryos].”

By contrast, Henry Miller of the Hoover Institution at Stanford, a right-wing think tank, has no doubts, publishing a letter in Science (June 19) under the provocative title:

Germline gene therapy: We're ready

In passing, Miller accuses Baltimore et al.—the authors of the call for a moratorium in Science—of “apparent nostalgia” for Asilomar, which he regards as a failure because it “exaggerated the potential risks of recombinant DNA technology,” among other things.

There were also some relatively unhelpful pieces in the press. Newsweek published one (June 30) that conflated the upcoming Institute of Medicine report on “3-person IVF” with gene editing, and contained the confused line: “Embryo editing could allow a mother to replace faulty genes with genes from a different woman.”

An article in The New York Times (June 29) suggested that germline intervention was entirely unproblematic unless used “to change such traits as eye color or intelligence”; implied that only Chinese scientists were working on applying gene-editing technology in this way; and seemed to hint that Chinese researchers have weaker ethical constraints and standards than Americans do.

Much better was the Nature editorial (July 1) noting that

the culture wars … are a reality that all must face — and that is a good thing. … As public awareness of the technology increases, that ethical discussion will rightly be taken out of [academic] hands alone and planted firmly in those of broader society. 

Finally, Pew Research released (July 1) the results of a science-related public opinion poll conducted in August 2014. The public was split over “changing a baby's genetic characteristics to reduce the risk of serious diseases,” with 50% saying that was “taking medical advances too far,” while 46% considered it appropriate. (Young male liberals tended to be in favor, and the respondents were not informed about already existing medical alternatives to germline manipulation.) However, 83% thought that “changing a baby's genetic characteristics to make the baby more intelligent” was going too far.  

Previously on Biopolitical Times: