Outpouring of Commentary on CRISPR Germline Editing

June 10, 2015

By Bio-IT World Staff 

June 10, 2015 | Nature has been closely following the ongoing discussion on CRISPR-Cas9, and what this remarkably easy and powerful gene editing technique means for our conceptions of what is practical and ethical in altering the human genome. Particularly contentious has been the prospect of editing DNA in the human germline, which could provide complete cures for deadly genetic diseases — but could also introduce changes to genome, for better or worse, that would be passed from generation to generation. Even some of the original inventors of CRISPR-Cas9 editing have called for moratoriums on research in the germline, possibly along the lines of the Asilomar Conference of 1975 that led to voluntary restrictions on the use of recombinant DNA technology.

Among Nature's coverage of this controversy has been a feature article published last month in Nature Biotechnology, weighing CRISPR's possibilities. Bio-IT World would like to extend a tip of the hat to Cormac Sheridan (@Cormac_Sheridan), who pointed out on Twitter that this article includes, in a supplementary document, complete Q&A's with over 20 experts discussing the promise of CRISPR therapeutics, the perils of editing the human germline, and what if any international norms or institutions could regulate its use. (The full article is subscription-only, but the supplementary document is free to view.) Among those interviewed are major CRISPR pioneers like Jennifer Doudna, Emmanuelle Charpentier, and Feng Zhang, and scientists with an outsize presence in biotech like J. Craig Venter. 

The entire set of responses is worth perusing, but we'll reproduce just a few choice snippets here: 

"The potential benefits are enormous. We are talking about cures for diseases, in which the cure itself is passed down through generations. Sobering stuff." - Jacob Corn, scientific director of the Innovative Genomics Initiative 

"[T]he unanticipated effects of targeted genetic modification are a major source of concern. We still have a great deal to learn about gene regulation and networks. No one would have worried about off target effects in non-coding RNAs a few years ago." - Martin Pera, chair of stem cell sciences at the University of Melbourne 

"Human germ-line engineering isn’t a new concept, but we haven’t had to think deeply about its management or regulation until now, because it was pretty theoretical until now. As is often the case, a technical breakthrough is forcing us to confront a complicated question fast." - Katrine Bosley, CEO of Editas Medicine 

"[T]he GMO debate (in agriculture) has been incredibly badly handled, but there is a risk that we haven't learned from this and will make the same mistakes, potentially delaying or foreclosing on what could be an immensely powerful means to prevent human suffering." - Tony Perry, head of the Laboratory of Mammalian Molecular Embryology at the University of Bath 

"Many parents (most likely mothers who carry an X-linked mutation) with a fatal genetic mutation who have lost a child before would take a risk to correct the genetic defect in germ cells or embryos. Is it moral to illegalize their desperate desire?" - Jin-Soo Kim, director of the Center for Genome Engineering at Seoul National University 

"Asilomar has become for biology what Woodstock has become for youth culture ― a mythology that's grown but that obscures how muddy the event itself was at the time." - Jonathan Moreno, professor of medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine 

"[H]uman germ-line engineering is inevitable and there will be basically no effective way to regulate or control the use of gene editing technology in human reproduction… One only needs to look at the proliferation of stem cell therapy clinics around the world largely in the absence of clear cut clinical data." - J. Craig Venter, chairman and CEO of Human Longevity, Inc. 

For more on this issue, you can listen to Jennifer Doudna's recent appearance on Radiolab — joined also by science writer Carl Zimmer.