By Farzana Paleker

Following an International Summit on Human Gene Editing in Washington D.C. earlier this month, scientists in the U.S. are now allowed to experiment on human genes – as long as it does not result in a pregnancy. The summit was organized after scientists in China successfully used CRISPR, a DNA editing tool, to genetically modify human embryos. The embryos were destroyed after the scientists performed germline (inheritable) modifications, but their accomplishment raised concerns among scientists and bioethicists who convened at the summit to discuss the prospect of editing the human genome.

The organizing committee of the summit issued a statement emphasizing that cells modified during gene editing should not be used to establish pregnancy and instituted a ban on the creation of designer or genetically modified babies citing ethical and safety reasons.

The committee reasserted that the practice of somatic gene editing, the manipulation of cells whose genomes are passed down only to descendants of that particular cell, could be used toward desirable ends. This therapy could mitigate cancers and diseases like cystic fibrosis and muscular dystrophy. However, the effects of somatic gene editing are usually short-term unlike germline therapy, which has the potential to affect future generations.

The committee’s objections to germline editing include the risk of inaccurate DNA editing and concerns surrounding the augmentation of human capacities such as strength and intelligence to create enhanced children. According to bioethicist Arthur Caplan, head of the Division of Bioethics at NYU Langone Medical Center, the practice would benefit humanity and enable more people to have children without the risk of passing on genetic defects, but cautions that it might encourage prejudice towards the disabled.

For bioethicist and legal expert Linda MacDonald Glenn there is a moral obligation to engage in germline editing, one that she believes is codified within the tenets of the medical profession. She believes that prohibiting such a practice constitutes a violation of reproductive rights and liberties.

Ultimately, the committee expressed an openness to the possibility of gene editing, but believe that continued dialogue is necessary.

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