National Academy of Sciences Is Weighing In on Gene Editing

Scientists are debating the ethics of gene editing. (Image: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain)
Scientists are debating the ethics of gene editing. (Image: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain)

With the new technology called CRISPR-Cas9, the United States’ leading scientific organization the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), and its Institute of Medicine, is responding to the concerns that have been expressed by scientists and ethicists on gene editing.

CRISPR-Cas9 has allowed scientists to be able to edit virtually any gene they target.

The technique is like a biological word-processing program where it can find and replace genetic defects. NAS has launched an initiative to recommend guidelines for the new genetic technology that has the potential to create “designer babies.”

The technique has taken biology by storm, igniting fierce patent battles between start-up companies and universities that say it could prove as profitable and revolutionary as recombinant DNA technology, which was developed in the 1970s and 1980s, and launched the biotechnology industry, Reuters wrote on their website.

Genome editing with CRISPR-Cas9:

There have been ethical concerns around CRISPR after scientists in China reported they were the first to carry out gene-editing experiments using CRISPR to alter the DNA of human embryos. Even though the embryos were not viable and would never have developed into babies, the announcement received heated responses from scientists that warned such a step would alter human genomes for generations.

In response, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and its Institute of Medicine said in a statement that they are “launching a major initiative to guide decision making about controversial new research involving human gene editing.  Human gene-editing technologies, such as CRISPR-Cas9, may lead to promising new treatments for disease.”

However, recent experiments to attempt to edit human genes also have raised important questions about the potential risks and ethical concerns of altering the human germline.”

Human genome editing banned by scientists over safety concerns:

In a joint statement, NAS President Ralph J. Cicerone and IOM President Victor J. Dzau said: “In addition, we will appoint a multidisciplinary, international committee to begin a comprehensive study of the scientific underpinnings and clinical, ethical, legal, and social implications of human gene editing.  The committee will consider and recommend standards, guidelines, and practices governing the use of gene-editing technologies in biomedical research and medicine.”

It is a step reminiscent of one in 1975, when the NAS convened the Asilomar Conference. That led to guidelines and federal regulations on recombinant DNA, the gene-splicing technology that underlays the founding of Genentech and other biotech companies, and revolutionized the production of many pharmaceuticals. The NAS committee will, similarly, recommend guidelines for gene-editing technologies, Reuters wrote.

NIH reaffirms ban on DNA editing of human embryos:

“We provided leadership in the past on emerging, controversial new areas of genetic research, such as human embryonic stem cell research (and) human cloning,” Cicerone and Dzau said in the joint statement. “We are prepared to work with the scientific and medical communities to achieve a comprehensive understanding of human gene editing and its implications.”

I’m not overly confident that the Chinese scientists will follow any guidelines that may come from this.

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