In the wake of news that scientists in China modified the DNA of human embryos, a number of scientists and bioethicists have called for a global moratorium on experiments that could alter the human germline. The White House has come out in support of such a ban — for now.
The idea that we’ll eventually be able to edit heritable human DNA has a lot of people rattled. Fears have been raised about unforeseen consequences, or the spectre of “designer babies.” Human germ line engineering has the potential to eliminate countless genetic disorders, but some say it’s simply not worth the risks.
In response to these concerns, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and its National Academy of Medicine have announced an international meeting to be held this fall in which researchers, bioethicists, and other experts will discuss the the implications of human germline gene-editing technologies in both research and clinical applications.
In a recent statement, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy expressed its support, saying that the Administration “believes that altering the human germline for clinical purposes is a line that should not be crossed at this time.”
At the same time, the White House is not ignoring the historical role that biotechnology has played in improving medicine and human health:
The advances in health technology over the past century — vaccines, antibiotics, early disease diagnostics, and treatment for countless health conditions — have reduced infant mortality, extended life expectancy, and alleviated suffering for millions. But new technology also brings risks and ethical challenges that require careful consideration.
In addition to exploring the implications of germline editing, the Administration hopes the meeting attendees will discuss the potential for alternative technologies that don’t require germline alterations.
It seems likely that an international moratorium will be established. But I’m also fairly confident it won’t last. The current hysteria around human germline editing is as understandable as it is predictable. Once this initial shock-phase comes to an end, scientists will eventually be permitted to conduct their critical work, albeit under strict guidelines. Though it may require decades of research and clinical testing, we’ll eventually see the advent of human germline engineering.
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