Over 150 prominent U.S. scientists are now calling for a moratorium on human gene editing, hoping to prevent “designer babies” from being born before we know how to deal with the implications.
The statement was issued to coincide with the International Summit on Human Gene Editing in Washington, D.C., which begins today. The conference, hosted by the U.S. National Academies of Sciences and Medicine, will bring global experts together to discuss the scientific, ethical, and governance issues surrounding gene-editing technology. Germline modification — that is, editing the genes of human embryos — is by far the most controversial item on the agenda.
Fears that we’re headed toward a Gattaca-style future, where ultra-precise gene editing techniques like CRISPR make it easier to engineer “superior” genes into our children, are the primary concerns voiced in the open letter.
While the scientists support using gene therapy to help treat diseases in adults, they draw the line at modifying germlines, even if the intentions are to edit disease out, rather than engineer new traits in:
“…there is no medical justification for modifying human embryos or gametes in an effort to alter the genes of a future child… While screening future children also raises significant ethical implications, it is far safer than experimentally manipulating the DNA of germ cells to produce genetically modified babies, and has less potential for widespread societal disruption.”
Human genome editing had long been relegated to the sci-fi realm, but rapid and recent developments in gene engineering tools have turned germline engineering into a very real thing — and it’s developing at a pace that ethicists, scientists, and legislators are struggling to keep up with.