Academy heads call for new standards after gene editing scandal

Scientists must act in wake of He Jiankui case, say US and Chinese leaders, to avoid ‘rash or hasty political reaction’

December 13, 2018
Gene editing

Leaders of US and Asian scientific academies are calling for the development of new global guidelines governing genome editing in human embryos, and for the creation of a whistleblowing “hotline”, after a Chinese scientist claimed to have created the world’s first genetically edited babies.

The presidents of the US National Academy of Medicine, the US National Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Sciences say that the He Jiankui case “highlights the urgent need to accelerate efforts to reach international agreement upon more specif­ic criteria and standards that have to be met before human germline editing would be deemed permissible”.

Dr He, an associate professor at the Southern University of Science and Technology, is reportedly under house arrest at his Shenzhen campus after claiming to have used a gene editing technology known as CRISPR-Cas9, which is banned in most countries, to alter the embryonic genes of twin girls born last month. Dr He, who said that gene editing would help to protect the babies from HIV infection, was on leave from his university and did not tell his employers of his work.

Writing in Science, Victor Dzau, Marcia McNutt and Chunli Bai say that, to maintain public trust that genome editing may one day be able to treat or prevent disease, “the research community needs to take steps now to dem­onstrate that this new tool can be applied with com­petence, integrity, and benevolence”.

“Unfortunately, it appears that the case presented [at a conference] in Hong Kong might have failed on all counts, risking human lives as well as rash or hasty political reaction,” they say.

The trio call on international experts to produce an “expedited” report to inform new criteria and standards which all genome editing in human embryos for reproductive purposes must confirm with, adding that the US national academies were prepared to lead this effort.

“We strongly believe that international con­sensus on such standards is important to avoid the po­tential for researchers to rationalise the justification or seek out convenient locales for conducting dangerous and unethical experimentation,” they write. “The establishment of interna­tional scientific standards is not intended to substitute for national regulation but could inform such regulation.”

The academy presidents add that researchers also need “an international mechanism that would en­able scientists to raise concerns about cases of research that are not conforming to the accepted principles or standards”.

They say that an already-proposed international forum on human genome editing “could provide such a mechanism, along with other important functions such as helping to speed the develop­ment of regulatory science, providing a clearinghouse for information about gover­nance options, contributing to the long-term development of common regulatory stan­dards, and enhancing coordi­nation of research and clinical applications through an inter­national registry of planned and ongoing experiments”.

chris.havergal@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

It's all very well to call for increased legislation and international agreements about what is ethical in genome research and what isn't - but Dr He was operating independently outwith the system, using a banned technique, so how would the likes of him be affected by them? There will always be those who go to far, sticking to the shadows rather than working openly within the reseach community and abiding by the rules.

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