By Bobby Thomas
The United States currently does not fund research-involving genetic editing of embryos. Yet given the rate of progress in the field of genetics, many feel the time to act is now. The Hinxton Group—an international consortium of policy experts, bioethicists, and researchers that conduct research on stem cells, and ethics and the law—states that, “there is a pressure to make decisions” and argues for embryonic gene editing.
Yet, they make a distinction between research and clinical application of gene editing research. The consensus statement published by the group states, “We believe that while this technology has tremendous value to basic research and enormous potential for somatic clinical uses, it is not sufficiently developed to consider human genome editing for clinical reproductive purposes at this time.”
Fascinatingly, research in China has shown that errors in DNA leading to a blood disorder can be corrected in early embryonic stage. Potentially, in the future, this technique can help avert children from being born with cystic fibrosis or cancerous cells.
Nonetheless controversy surrounds the issue. There are concerns of eugenics and producing “designer babies.” Despite these worries, there are immediate uses that are far less controversial. For example, in some cases children with no immune systems (known as bubble-boy syndrome) have had improved outcomes; and there have been successful trials to give HIV patients immunity to the virus. Since these variations cannot be passed on the next generation, these experiments are more open to being funded and researched upon.
Ultimately, more discussion must be conducted to ensure that the right steps to take in this pioneering research happen. Mathews, the Assistant Director for Science Programs at John Hopkins, comments, “While there is a controversy and deep moral disagreement about human germline genetic modification, what is needed is not to stop all discussion, debate and research, but rather to engage with the public, policymakers and the broader scientific community, and to weigh together the potential benefits and harms of human genome editing for research and human health.”
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