Rules for research on gene editing in Germline


Human embryos in a petri dish are examined under a microscope.

Ethical and ethical issues relating to the editing of genes in human embryos have become a topic of debate around the world.Credit: Sandy Huffaker / Bloomberg / Getty

At the end of last month, the Chinese Ministry of Health released draft guidelines to prevent offenders from prematurely using new and unapproved biomedical technologies in the clinic. The regulations require that the most risky techniques – including editing of human genes – be approved by the Chinese Ministry of Health.

There is nowhere in the advertisement, in the regulations or in an information document, the name of He Jiankui. But the controversy surrounding He – who announced the birth of genetically modified babies last year – was clearly driving the guidelines. China is embarrassed by Il's widely condemned work, which has flouted safety and ethical research conventions. Its latest regulations – which include threats of fines and blacklists, as well as references to pre-existing laws – are clearly designed to reinforce deterrence.

How to stop the next thief from gene editing is an urgent topic for researchers around the world. In Nature This week, an international group of ethicists and researchers, including some of those who initially developed CRISPR – Cas9 as a gene editing tool, are calling for a moratorium on drugs. clinical use of editing on human germ lines – introducing hereditary modifications of sperm, ova or embryos – until the safety of the technique has been better studied and acceptable uses have been have been agreed. The US National Institutes of Health have supported the call.

The question of whether such a moratorium would be effective is an issue actively debated within the research community, national academies and groups such as the World Health Organization (WHO). It is equally important to know whether this would facilitate a more in-depth examination of the ethical and ethical issues surrounding the clinical uses of germ line modification in people with different perspectives. Until now, there is no sign of resolution. This is a debate that requires wider participation of society in general, especially families affected by genetic diseases. It is also difficult to know how a global moratorium would be applied. China had a regulation on gene editing that amounted to a national moratorium, but it obviously did not work.

Whether or not a moratorium is receiving more generalized support, several steps need to be taken to ensure that germline modification studies, conducted for research purposes only, take a safe and judicious route. Proposals from all ethically-approved and ethically-based basic research studies that use gene editing tools in human embryos and gametes, including those aimed at assessing efficacy and safety, should be placed in an open register.

Second, researchers need to develop a system to quickly recognize any research that may exceed predefined limits. WHO's guidelines for the regulation of research with potential biosecurity risk could be a useful model to follow. The system should include a mechanism – perhaps affiliated with the open registry – that allows researchers to report potentially dangerous searches. To analyze if the work of He could have been avoided will help. It is important to determine if, how and to whom scientists and ethicists who became aware of the project were able to express their concerns – and how they could do it more easily in the future. Ringing the alarm would require a change in practice of researchers who, often in the interest of scientific independence, often do not intervene in the choice of research projects undertaken by their peers.

Unfortunately, there will always be countries with relatively lax legal frameworks that could be exploited by non-conformists. Global efforts should therefore also aim at developing and integrating legal strategies for preventing and penalizing unacceptable research.

The British Authority for Human Fertilization and Embryology, an independent regulatory agency for research on human embryos and gametes, could be inspired by this global framework. Researchers could submit to such a body proposals to evaluate the safety and feasibility of a particular genetic modification in embryos, as well as the rationale for the work. To be able to continue, researchers could be invited to adhere to a set of principles by signing a code of conduct. Research institutes and funders, on the other hand, should define and monitor clear protocols for research on germinal genome editing. Institutes must take responsibility for carefully reviewing these studies early and regularly.

Journals must agree on well-documented minimum standards of ethical conduct and reporting, to which research must be organized. Nature Research journals, like many others, seek ethical advice along with scientific journals when looking at sensitive categories of human embryo research Nature 5576; 2018).

Stakeholders must act now to reach consensus and WHO is well placed to take the lead. Scientific academies around the world have announced their intention to lead a commission on scientific and ethical issues related to germline gene editing.

A small contribution Nature can do is to debate and encourage more debate. With this in mind, we welcome the opinions of readers (see Could the clinical use of germline gene editing tools ever be justified? If so, in what framework should this occur?

We would particularly like to hear those whose voices have been somewhat marginalized so far. This includes patient groups and those with valuable experience in working with human embryos, embryonic stem cells and germ cells, as well as experience in research and related regulations, such as innovation, disability rights, citizen engagement methodologies philosophy of science and dual-use technologies. The right decisions about altering the human germline can only be reached through frank and open discussion, followed by quick action. With so much at stake, this must happen now.

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