Last week at London, a small group of protesters braved it in the rain outside the Francis Crick Institute, where the Third International Summit on Human Genome Editing was taking place. The sparse congregation, of the group Stop designer babies, held up signs urging “Never again eugenics” and “NO HGM” (no human genetic modification). The group is campaigning against what it sees as the scientific community’s shift towards the use of gene editing for biological enhancement – to alter genomes to give, for example, superior intelligence or blue eyes. If that happened, it would be a slippery slope to eugenics, the group argues.
Three days later, at the close of the summit, it appears that the group’s wishes have been partially granted, at least for now.
After several days of experts chewing over the scientific, ethical and governance issues associated with human genome editing, the summit organizing committee presented its closing statement. Hereditary editing of the human genome – the editing of embryos which are then implanted to establish a pregnancy, which can pass on their modified DNA – “remains unacceptable at this time”, the committee concluded. “Public discussions and political debates are ongoing and are important in determining whether this technology should be used.”
The use of the word “if” in that last sentence was carefully chosen and carries a lot of weight, says Françoise Baylis, a bioethicist who was on the organizing committee. Basically, the word isn’t “how” – “that, I think, is a clear signal that the debate is open,” she says.
This marks a shift in attitude since the last summit closed in 2018, when Chinese scientist He Jiankui dropped a bombshell: He revealed he had previously used Crispr to edit human embryos, resulting in birth to three babies edited by Crispr. – much to the horror of summit participants and the rest of the world. In its final statement, the committee condemned He Jiankui’s premature actions, but at the same time it signaled a yellow light rather than a red one on germline genome editing, i.e. proceed with caution. He recommended establishing a “translational pathway” that could take the approach to clinical trials in a rigorous and responsible way.
Over the past half-decade, research has confirmed that germline genome editing is still far too risky, and that’s even before it begins to address the enormous ethical concerns and societal ramifications. And those concerns were only heightened at this year’s summit.
These include, for example, mosaicism, where genome editing results in some cells getting different changes from others. At the summit, Shoukhrat Mitalipov, a biologist at Oregon Health and Science University, presented results from his lab which showed that germline genome editing resulted in unintended – and potentially dangerous – changes to the genomes of embryos, which standard DNA reading tests used to screen embryos before implantation might not detect . Another scientist, Dagan Wells, a reproductive biologist at the University of Oxford, presented research on how embryos repair breaks in their DNA after being modified. His work revealed that around two-fifths of embryos failed to repair broken DNA. A child growing from such an embryo could suffer from health problems.
The message was loud and clear: Scientists don’t yet know how to safely edit embryos.
For Katie Hasson, associate director of the Center for Genetics and Society, a California-based nonprofit that advocates for a broad ban on hereditary genome editing, those few lines in the committee’s closing statement were the most important thing. to come out of the top. “I think it’s a significant step back from the edge of the abyss.”
But determining “whether” germline hereditary editing will ever be acceptable requires a lot more work. “This conversation about whether or not we should do this needs to be much broader than what we saw at the summit,” Hasson says. The world needs to come to a broad societal consensus on this issue, Baylis says. She fears that this work will not take place. So far, these summits have led the discussion on the changing terrain, but whether a fourth summit will ever take place remains to be seen. “I think we haven’t had the tough conversations yet that we still need,” Baylis says.