Scientists debate boundaries, ethics of human gene editing

In the U.S., germline editing for clinical use — meaning for pregnancy — “is a line that should not be crossed at this time,” John Holdren of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy said on Tuesday.

Last spring’s experiment in China highlighted that ethics aside, embryo editing wasn’t anywhere near ready for real-world use for safety reasons: Those off-target edits risked fixing one problem only to create another. But there’s controversy over whether and how to continue laboratory experiments to see whether it eventually could work.

Around the world, laws and guidelines vary widely about what germline, or hereditary, research is allowed. Some ban any research; some allow only lab research but not pregnancies; some have no policies. In the U.S., the National Institutes of Health won’t fund germline research but private funding is allowed.

What one country attempts “will have consequences in others,” the White House’s Holdren noted.

Proponents say the ultimate goal is to prevent mom and dad from passing devastating diseases to their children.

“This technology is poised to transform preventive medicine,” Harvard geneticist George Church wrote in Nature.

He added a warning: If mainstream scientists can’t explore heritable gene editing, that “could put a damper on the best medical research and instead drive the practice underground to black markets and uncontrolled medical tourism.”

It’s not just about editing embryos; some potentially simpler treatments hinge on germline editing policies, too. At the University of Pittsburgh, Dr. Kyle Orwig wants to develop treatments for male infertility by altering sperm-producing cells that in some men, don’t do their job.

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