An international body of scientific experts has stated, with caution, that gene editing technologies should be allowed for treating diseases or disabilities. The US National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine said in a 200-page report that genetic editing should not be used for cosmetic enhancements such as creating a smarter, taller, or better-looking child.

Crispr Gene Editing
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Do not use gene editing for cosmetic changes

The report was prepared by 22 scientists and ethicists from around the world. It is meant to serve as ethical guidelines for gene editing technologies that have become increasingly popular in medical research in recent years. For instance, Crispr can remove a targeted fragment of DNA and replace it with other genetic instructions. Gene editing could be used to treat diseases or disabilities caused by genetic defects such as metabolic disorders, certain cancers, and diseases of liver, lung, and eyes.

Richard Hynes, a biologist at MIT who was part of the committee, said its use should be limited to “fixing diseases.” Editing the human embryos or tweaking the DNA to alter traits like intelligence, strength or beauty should be prohibited. Since the effects of genetic alternations could last for generations, both the potential harms and potential benefits could be multiplied.

Criteria for gene editing

The committee added that gene editing should be used only to treat diseases that can’t be cured with “reasonable alternatives.” Scientists would also have to convincingly show that they are specifically targeting a gene that causes or predisposes a carrier to a serious disease or medical condition. They also have to take into account the risks and benefits of altering that gene.

The advisory group said that such clinical trials should be carried out under public scrutiny, taking into account personal dignity, scientific integrity, and societal fairness. Researchers should also monitor the subjects in the long-term to see how gene editing affects future generations. The report is seen by the scientific community as forward-thinking.

Should germline modification remain off-limits?

Some biologists and ethicists believe that human germline modification should be off-limits. The US government has avoided supporting research into genetic editing until now, but scientists in China and Sweden are already engaged in similar work. Last year, Chinese biologists began using Crispr to treat lung cancer as part of a trial. Final results of the treatment are still awaited.

Many Western scientists have expressed concerns that if progressive measures are not taken, ethical reservations in their respective countries would put them at a disadvantage. For now, gene editing companies like Intellia Therapeutics and Editas Medicine are not involved in editing embryos. Also, their experimental treatments won’t be heritable.