Playing God: Human Genome Editing Gets Final Nod

Creation of Adam

A U.S. panel of experts approved genome editing to be used on humans only if it prevents or treats diseases.

The National Academy of Sciences, which was called last year to rule on the appropriateness of changing people’s genetic makeup, gave the green light for human genome editing, but under certain conditions. The group said the procedure should be used on human embryos only to remove genes that might later lead to “non-inherited” diseases. By no means should it be used to create the so-called superbabies.

The lab technique is widely used on animals, with scientists cutting and pasting genes to add desirable traits or undo unwanted mutations. Some professionals in the medical community have high hopes that the method may one day help them find a cure for cancer and blindness.

The NAS’ 261-page report endorses the technique only for curing and preventing disease in humans. Richard Hynes, the co-chair of the committee that drafted the report, noted science is advancing fast but humanity needs to have a good control of what is being done.

The panel said human genome editing for purposes other than disease prevention and treatment “should not proceed” for the moment. The group called for public discussions on the appropriateness of such applications.

These discussions may get heated though as parents of gravely ill kids may want to use the method to shield their offspring from inherited conditions such as sickle cell, Parkinson’s disease, and muscular dystrophy.

However, this could fast turn into a slippery slope as inserting genes that enhance muscle growth in people with muscular dystrophy is clearly therapeutic, while performing the same procedure on people seeking to win the Olympics is not.

University of Wisconsin’s Alta Charo, who co-chairs the group, explained that “off-label uses” are highly unlikely. She explained that cell therapies respond only to a specific defect. They don’t provide additional benefits to healthy people. Charo is also confident that agencies such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will ensure the method is not abused.

Nevertheless, not everyone in the field is as confident as her. George Church of the Harvard and MIT noted that when you want to fix something that is broken you can easily fall on the low or high side of the bell curve, rather than stay in the middle.

Church noted the NAS’ guidelines are easily interpretable as they don’t have a clear definition for terms such as “rare” and “better”. So, people desperate to forestall natural aging processes might give big money to have the procedure done. Church, who co-funded the gene-editing company Editas Medicine, thinks a treatment to fix age-related cognitive decline is already in the making.
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