Leading scientists call for a global moratorium on the creation of "CRISPR babies"


TThe Chinese scientist who created the "CRISPR babies," He Jiankui, sincerely believed that the research did not violate the laws of his country or the guidelines of the international scientific community, according to his friends and colleagues. He did not keep his experience secret: he informed at least four American scientists that he was planning to establish a pregnancy with genetically modified IVF embryos, hired an American scientist in his Shenzhen laboratory, is associated with a Chinese hospital and an IVF clinic, and proudly announced the birth of "Nana" and "Lulu" on YouTube in November.

Although researchers strongly condemned his work, calling it unethical and violating the scientific red line – and although the Chinese government has since accused him of violating their laws – he clearly had not received the memo.

Now, in an effort to prevent further access, 18 scientists from seven countries have called for "a global moratorium on all clinical uses of human germ line modification", ie modify the DNA of sperm, ova or early embryos to make genetically modified children. , changes that would be passed on to future generations. They say that a moratorium should be in place for at least five years.


In a statement, Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said that "the NIH strongly agree that an international moratorium be put into effect immediately."

But even before it was published Wednesday in Nature, the newspaper was getting scientists to agree for or against what they call "the word M": if a moratorium is the best way to prevent another It's not to stifle what might one day be a safe and beneficial technology, and even if a moratorium is currently in place. As the editorial of Nature, "until now, there is no sign of resolution."

Authors calling for a moratorium include Feng Zhang of the Broad Institute and Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Berlin Max Planck Institute for the Study of Pathogens, two of the scientists who separately led the development of CRISPR for genome editing; David Liu of Harvard University, who invented a specific form of CRISPR; and Eric Lander, Broad's director, co-chair of President Obama's Council of Science Advisors.

An equally stellar list of scientists shines by their absence. One, biochemist Jennifer Doudna of the University of California at Berkeley, argues for "strict regulation prohibiting the use" of germ line modification until scientific problems arise. , ethical and societal issues are resolved, she said during an interview. "I prefer that to a" moratorium "which, for me, has an indefinite duration and does not provide any path to possible responsible use."

Doudna, a Charpentier collaborator in the 2012 CRISPR genome editing document, and some other CRISPR experts say an "effective moratorium" has been in place since 2015. "We have a moratorium," said Lander. "Everyone said we should not be editing the genome yet."

In fact, neither the first international summit on genome editing, in Washington in 2015, nor the second, in Hong Kong, last November, where he announced his experience, called for a moratorium .

"We have not consciously used the word" moratorium "because people take it for a permanent ban and that it would be difficult to reverse it," said David Baltimore of the California Institute of Technology. , who chaired the organizing committees of both summits. "A moratorium limits your options and does not send the message that people could benefit from it. The current call for a moratorium seems to me to be a bad approach, "said the Nobel laureate who, in Hong Kong, passionately denounced Il's work.

Baltimore calls semantics disagreement and denies that he and Lander, with whom he discussed the Nature document before its publication, differ fundamentally. The official statements of the two summits on the genome, as well as an influential essay published in 2015 by Baltimore, Doudna and 16 co-authors insisting on the need for a "cautious approach to germ line modification" have all highlighted many criteria that should be met for clinical modification of the germ line. (that is, make babies, not as part of basic research without pregnancy) to continue.

Although Baltimore maintains that these statements "were unambiguous in asserting that we were not ready to move forward," the most compelling recommendation in the "cautious approach" was that countries should "strongly discourage" germ line modification to "responsible use", if any, are identified.

Words matter, said science historian Ben Hurlbut of the University of Arizona, who had extensive discussions with He prior to the creation of 'Nana' and 'Lulu'.

"My impression is that if the" moratorium "had been used, that is to say a categorical prohibition of germline modification for reproductive purposes, that would not have happened," he said. Hurlbut. Instead, he weighed the germ line modification criteria in the 2015 summit declaration, the "cautious approach" document and a 2017 report from the national academies and "felt that he had checked all the boxes, "said Hurlbut, adding that the procedure was safe and effective. and responded to a serious and unmet medical need.

None of this was true, but the absence of a generalized moratorium – even when confidants urged him not to proceed further – allowed him to follow his own subjective judgment and self-interest.

The opinion of the experts nevertheless remains divided on the wisdom of a moratorium.

Opponents fear that a formal ban, possibly backed by national laws prohibiting the alteration of the germline for the manufacture of the baby, is difficult to cancel. The "current moratorium," as Doudna calls it, which any scientist is supposed to recognize, can more easily disappear if the regulated community itself – the genome scientists – reaches a consensus that this technique has allowed to remove barriers in terms of safety, efficiency, benefits, and support of society.

"We did not call for a moratorium because we did not think it was the right thing to do," said Richard Hynes of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who co-chaired the National Academies' 2017 report on publishing. of the genome. "We have specified what would be necessary to go forward."

"I do not disagree with the call for an international framework setting standards for both scientific barriers and ethical and social concerns," said Dr. George Daley, Dean of the School. of Harvard Medicine. "But I'm afraid the moratorium will complicate future discussions instead of clarifying them. How long should a moratorium last? How is it applied? Who decides when to cancel?

Others, who dispute the value of a moratorium, wonder if it would work even without strict legislation, oversight and enforcement. "It's not enough for everyone to promise to do what's right," said Harvard biologist George Church. "You need an enforcement mechanism," like radar guns that impose speed limits. "Just ask for another moratorium, it's take a position."

On the other hand, scientists who support a moratorium consider its experience as proof that what currently exists has not worked.

"My reaction [to the Lander group’s call for a moratorium] It's thanks to us for accepting the sense of urgency we all feel and recognizing the threat that germinal publishing poses to the ethical uses of this technology, "said Fyodor Urnov of the Altius Institute for Science. Seattle Biomedical Society, inventor of the pre-CRISPR. editing technique of the genome called zinc fingers. "I hope that a moratorium will be adopted country by country and that this will set the bar very high to lift it."

On the sidelines of the moratorium debate, Lander said "the real question" is what countries do as long as it is in force. "We take for granted that countries will pass laws to prevent" germ-line babies, he said. (The clinical use of germ line modification is already illegal in some 30 countries.) In addition, the moratorium period should be used to establish an international framework allowing countries to alert the world to its disease. They want to allow CRISPR babies.

Currently, "we have no framework to discuss this," said Lander. "We have reports, summits and temporary committees, but no permanent framework on how the world should think about this technology. There is no place to go if a country means that it is considering this. "

No one should do it, they wrote, as well as his colleagues, without "notice to the public (perhaps two years) of his intention to consider authorizing" CRISPR children, "an international discussion solid on the pros and cons "," an evaluation both technical and technical ". , scientific and medical considerations, as well as societal, ethical and moral issues "and the determination that there is" a broad societal consensus in the nation ".

They reject the idea of ​​an international treaty banning the creation of germline babies, saying that the CRISPR baby version of the global chemical and biological weapons treaty "is too rigid for a germline clinical edition".

A moratorium will not stop dishonest scientists, acknowledged Lander, but dismissed the concern not to prevent another Nana and Lulu from being "irrelevant." A dishonest action does not change the world. The real question is: will a country follow [genetically] edit people "via the germline edition.

The mechanism that he and his colleagues proposed, they wrote, "will place major speed bumps in front of the most daring projects to reconfigure the human species".

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