Since its discovery in the late 1900s, genome editing has been at the center of many debates. Although the technology has rapidly evolved, ethical deliberation has not progressed at quite so fast a pace. While we know that we can edit the human genome, many scientists and non-scientists alike still question if we should. A new report by the International Commission on the Clinical Use of Human Germline Genome Editing recommends that strict conditions are met prior to the start of clinical germline gene editing in humans. Drafting this report appears to have been a wise choice for the future of genome editing.
To offer a quick background, germline genetic modification allows for the manipulation of one’s heritable genetic code. This means that any changes made are passed down to future generations. The field of genetics is still relatively new, and much remains to be learned about the immensely complex human genome. The uncertainty around gene editing means that specific edits made with one intention could trigger changes in other traits not meant to be affected. Additionally, left unchecked, the power to edit humans’ genetic codes could lead to questionable manipulations, from “designer babies” with curated traits, to humans with severe complications due to editing gone wrong, to genetically modified people with nonhuman traits à la Spider-Man or Wolverine. In germline editing, all of these alterations could then be inherited by offspring.
This is why the first case of germline gene editing in human embryos was met with such criticism, when He Jiankui made headlines in 2018 announcing the birth of genetically altered twins. His research had not been previously authorized, leading many people to call for strict regulations on future genetic experimentation.
This affair prompted the formation of the International Commission, which has attempted to preemptively provide guidelines for heritable gene editing in the event that it is deemed permissible. The commission does not offer its opinion on whether or not gene editing should even be allowed, giving only scientific guidance and leaving that question up for debate. This has raised the objection that their report is unwarranted, with critics arguing that providing such criteria pressures society into accepting germline gene editing.
Despite what the critics may say, this report is a step in the right direction for the future of potential germline genetic modification. Firstly, the guidelines given by the commission are only suggestions, crafted through careful consideration and offered to countries to accept or deny. Should genome editing become approved by society, the framework would already be in place, allowing the science to proceed more smoothly. With these guidelines set, scientists would be deterred from performing drastic and possibly dangerous human gene editing experimentation. If society does rule against germline gene editing, then no harm would have come from proposing these guidelines.
“Despite what the critics may say, this report is a step in the right direction for the future of potential germline genetic modification.”
Furthermore, the commission recommends that germline gene editing be limited to very few cases: only serious single-gene diseases or in embryos with a very high chance of carrying specific disease-causing mutations. If the technology would prove successful in these limited cases, it could potentially be expanded. This would help to set boundaries and prevent overuse of genetic modification in the early stages when the technology is first being tested on human germlines.
Another important suggestion of the commission is the formation of an official international scientific advisory committee which would make the ultimate decisions about gene editing technology and projects. While some countries already have laws to prevent heritable gene editing, an international authority would be a valuable means by which to create uniform regulations and prevent this technology from getting out of hand.
Creating a set of guidelines for future germline genetic modification is not premature at this point. Advancements are being made rather quickly in genome editing technologies, and it is not inconceivable that safe clinical applications could be possible soon. It is important that rules and regulations are able to keep up. These considerations therefore must be made now, regardless of what consensus society eventually reaches on the fate of heritable human gene editing.