Mark Schiefelbein / AP
A group of prominent scientists and bioethicists are calling for a worldwide moratorium on any new attempt to introduce gene-modified babies into the world.
"We call for a worldwide moratorium on all clinical uses of human germ line modification, that is, modification of hereditary DNA (in sperm, eggs or embryos) to make them genetically modified children ", write the 18 scientists and bioethicists of seven countries Wednesday by the newspaper Nature.
This call was launched following the announcement last year by a scientist in China, He Jiankui, that he had used the powerful new gene editing technique CRISPR to create the first babies in the world to be modified. He says he changed the DNA of the twins when they were embryos to try to protect them from the AIDS virus.
The announcement was widely condemned as unethical and irresponsible. It also sparked intense debate about whether more could have been done to stop the scientist – and it should be done now to try to prevent more researchers from becoming thieves.
In response, the new coalition of scientists and bioethicists proposes that each country declare a moratorium, perhaps for five years, on scientists trying to create babies whose DNA has been altered.
"We all think that we should not go ahead," said Eric Lander, director of Broad Institute at Harvard and MIT. coups "And starting by saying that we should have a moratorium brings significant clarity to the thing."
The scientists point out that they do not advocate a "permanent ban" or any restrictions on basic research that could eventually lead to the creation of gene-modified babies in the future. Instead, a global moratorium would allow the creation of an "international framework" on the best way to proceed responsibly.
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Scientists could continue to carry out the necessary studies to determine whether it would be possible to safely and effectively edit the DNA of human embryos for purposes that may be considered appropriate, such as the prevention of genetic diseases for which it is not there is no other choice.
If this happens, the group suggests that the public be warned sufficiently in advance of any proposal to create gene-modified babies in order to allow time for a "solid international discussion on the pros and cons of the make". The group suggests that this period could last two years.
"It's such a powerful technology that people have already started offering ways to" improve the human genome, "Lander said. But, he adds, "deciding whether we need to reshape the human genetic code requires careful thought."
In the United States, federal law prohibits the creation of genetically modified babies. And about 30 countries have similar bans. But many others do not do it.
The call for a global moratorium has been hailed by many scientists and bioethicists.
"The philosophical and theological consequences of rewriting our own instruction manual are important enough that someone like me – who is generally opposed to the idea of a moratorium – feels that he is time to stop and consider very carefully the pros and cons, "said Dr. Francis Collins, who heads the National Institutes of Health, tells coups. Collins co-authored an article supporting the call.
But some scientists and bioethicists, while agreeing that it is much too early for anyone to try to create gene-modified babies, are worried about the use of the word moratorium.
"I fear that a moratorium will complicate future discussions instead of clarifying them," said Dr. George Daley, dean of Harvard Medical School.
"How long should a moratorium last, who decides when and how to cancel a moratorium, will such an appeal provoke even more restrictive attempts to legislate science and ban all clinical work?" Said Daley.
Some fear that a moratorium will lead scientists underground.
"I do not think we wanted to push people to hide for that," says Jennifer Doudna, a biochemist at the University of California, Berkeley, who helped develop CRISPR. "Instead, I'd like to have a much more open and transparent international conversation.I do not like the word moratorium because it goes a bit against that spirit." "
But others welcome the call, saying that clearer statements from groups such as the National Academy of Sciences could have prevented He Jiankui from doing what he did.
"Although it would have been much better if the call for an explicit moratorium had been more responsive than reactive, better late than never," writes Benoît Hurlbut, bioethicist at Arizona State University. .
Some say that a moratorium is crucial to prevent scientists from trying to create "designer babies".
"This statement says," Hey. Wait. Stop. It is too important for small groups of scientists to take these decisions for the whole of humanity, "said Marcy Darnovsky, Center Manager. for Genetics & Society, a surveillance group.
"Allowing the release of reproductive genes would open the door to some people whose parents were able to afford genetic improvements considered superior to all others," said Darnovsky. "The last thing we want to do is build a future in which we create classes of people considered to be genetic and others in need."
The others are in agreement.
"The world needs to unite to avoid creating a fleet of offshore boats carrying the designer baby logo," says Fyodor Urnov, a visiting scholar at the University's innovative Genomics Institute. from California to Berkeley. "It's not too late to prevent this from happening, and we have to do it."
The Presidents of the US National Academy of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences, as well as the Royal Society in Britain, wrote another accompanying article stating that they were working on obtaining an international consensus on the standards to be applied to such research.
"We need to reach a broad societal consensus before making any decision, thus giving the overall implications of hereditary genomic modification," they write.
An editorial of the journal notes that "the question of whether such a moratorium would be effective is a point actively debated by the research community, national academies and groups such as the World Health Organization".