What is Ethical Gene Editing?

(October 13th, 2016) The Nuffield Council on Bioethics, an independent body that advises policy makers, recently published the first findings of its review on the impact of genome editing in research.

Affordable, efficient and easy to use, genome editing techniques, such as CRISPR/Cas9, are spreading like wild fire in labs around the world. From engineered mosquitoes to designer babies, it seems like anything is possible.

Exactly because it seems like anything is possible, the UK-based Nuffield Council on Bioethics has recently published a 130-page report looking at ethical dilemmas that may potentially arise in the future. “Genome editing in general, and CRISPR-Cas9 in particular, has had a remarkable impact on research across the life sciences. Greater accessibility and rapidly increasing precision in genome interventions has opened up a wide range of technical possibilities that were previously only theoretical”, says council member John Dupré, Professor of Sociology, Philosophy and Anthropology at the University of Exeter. “The Council felt that it was highly desirable to review ethical and regulatory issues as early as possible in the development of these applications, in part with the hope of steering applications in desirable, and away from undesirable, directions”.

This main purpose of this report was to identify, which specific fields of research require a more in-depth and detailed ethical review. After months of analysis and thousands of papers, members of the panel recognised a need to look more specifically at issues associated with human reproduction, including modifications to the human germline; and genetic manipulations in livestock. With this in mind, the Council has requested two further inquiries, specifically to address issues associated with each of these two subjects. Findings are expected to be published in 2017.

One of the areas, human reproduction, “was deemed urgent in large part because of the very high degree of public concern we observed with this issue”, says Dupré. Certainly, its major issue will be where to draw the line in terms of genetically manipulating humans. Using CRISPR in humans may be prohibited by law in Europe at the moment, but such applications are theoretically possible and some defend their application, particularly to eliminate certain diseases. For the Council, it’s imperative to answer questions regarding safety and efficiency, before the technique ever becomes a viable choice to address genetic conditions.

Issues associated with human reproduction may be the first ones to mind, but it's not the only area that needs careful scrutiny. In fact, using this technique to genetically modify livestock, such as pigs resistant to disease and cows without horns, brings its own set of ethical questions. This includes, for example, issues around animal welfare and food labelling. In this respect, one of the main concerns is whether genome-edited animals should be seen as Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). “Unlike traditional ways of producing GMOs, genome editing leaves no signs that distinguish the animal from one produced by selective breeding or random mutation”, explains Dupré, who will be chairing the second stage Working Group devoted to livestock modifications. “This provides one reason for thinking it might be better to classify animals in terms of product, the actual features of the animal, rather than process”.

In the meantime, although not with the same sense of urgency, they also plan to keep an eye on other uses, such as gene drives to control wildlife populations, potential military applications and amateur genetic manipulations by DIY biologists.

Alex Reis

Picture: The Broad Institute

Last Changes: 11.08.2016

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