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Genetically modified human embryos have been created, for the first time. The Center for Genetics and Society is calling for a halt to experiments aimed at the creation of genetically modified human beings. Many scientists have recently voiced support for either a ban or a moratorium on human germline modification (genetic changes that will be inherited by all subsequent generations). The urgency of this debate is now crucial.
The genetically modified human embryos were created using the gene-editing technique CRISPR/Cas9, according to a report that was released today in the online journal Protein & Cell. The experiments were conducted by a research team led by Junjiu Huang of Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China. Rumors about the work over the past few months have prompted statements of concern by several groups of prominent scientists, as well as scholars and public interest advocates.
Huang and his colleagues’ efforts were not successful. The genetic changes they intended were made in only a small number of the embryos they used. In addition, they found a large number of “off target” effects. While they acknowledge that these results “support the notion that clinical applications of the CRISPR/Cas9 system may be premature at this stage,” their goal remains refining germline gene editing for clinical use.
Human germline modification is widely considered unethical for both safety and social reasons. Using germline modification techniques to create a human being is prohibited by more than 40 countries and several international human rights treaties.
“No researcher has the moral warrant to flout the globally widespread policy agreement against altering the human germline,” commented Marcy Darnovsky, PhD, CGS Executive Director. “The medical risks and social dangers of human germline modification cannot be overstated. Creating genetically modified human beings could easily lead to new forms of inequality, discrimination and societal conflict.”
Despite the immediate failure of their work, the researchers have said they will persist in their efforts. And they are not alone. According to news reports, at least four other groups in China are currently exploring gene editing of human embryos.
“This paper demonstrates the enormous safety risks that any attempt to produce a genetically modified human being would entail, and underlines the urgency of working to forestall such efforts,” Darnovsky said.
Observers note that the development of gene editing makes germline modification so technically easy that anyone with basic molecular biology training has the capability to attempt it.
“We can no longer consider this a far-off prospect to be dealt with in the future,” Darnovsky said. “We need to act immediately to strengthen the global policy agreements that put human germline modification off limits.”
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The Center for Genetics and Society is a non-profit public affairs and policy advocacy organization working to encourage responsible uses and effective societal governance of human genetic and reproductive biotechnologies.