The discovery of the CRISPR and its ongoing development into a genome-editing tool represents the work of many scientists from all around the world. Likely, it alarmed scientists all over the world, when the news of the world’s first genetically modified babies using CRISPR technology was announced. On 25th November 2018, He Jiankui, from a university in Shenzhen had told ‘the Associated Press’ that he had succeeded in helping create the world’s first genetically-edited babies. This sudden announcement raised a lot of curiosity, comments, and questions on the dramatic CRISPR research. It was stated that the procedure was irresponsible and failed to conform to international norms. Eventually, it raised questions on the applications and ethics of gene editing on humans, which was a heated debate for scientists all around the world.
Months later, a prominent group of 18 scientists and bioethicists from seven countries has called for a global “moratorium” on introducing heritable changes into human sperm, eggs, or embryos—germline editing—to make genetically altered children. Feng Zhang and Emmanuelle Charpentier (two discoverers of the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing system), along with MIT biologist Eric Lander and 15 other researchers from around the world, highlighted the urgent need to put a pause on the gene editing technology used to create genetically modified babies, until countries agree on the best way to head ahead with this technology, in a new Nature commentary, published on 13th of March, 2019.
Seemingly, this action was taken to influence a long-standing debate that intensified after China’s He Jiankui’s announcements, that he used CRISPR to try to alter the genes of babies to be resistant to the AIDS virus. The move is intended to send a clear signal to maverick researchers, and the scientific community more broadly, that any attempt to rewrite the DNA of sperm, eggs or embryos destined for live births is not acceptable.
The authors also wrote,
“By ‘global moratorium’, we do not mean a permanent ban. Rather, we call for the establishment of an international framework in which nations, while retaining the right to make their own decisions, voluntarily commit to not approve any use of clinical germline editing unless certain conditions are met.”
“The real questions going forward are what decisions will countries make over the years and decades about which applications, if any, should be allowed. We want a framework in place so that our children are proud of the decisions that get made, rather than thinking society moved forward thoughtlessly.”
However, everyone supports the moratorium. Scientists including Nobel laureate David Baltimore of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena remain opposed to a moratorium. Even in the wake of the He incident, Baltimore, who helped organize the summits, denounced such a ban as “draconian” and “antithetical to the goals of science.”
Any nation that wants to greenlight a human germline edit by its scientists, the 18 authors declare, should have to give public notice, engage in an international and transparent assessment of whether the intervention is justified, and make sure the work has broad support in their own nation. “Nations might well choose different paths, but they would agree to proceed openly and with due respect to the opinions of humankind on an issue that will ultimately affect the entire species,” they write. They strongly encourage that nonscientific perspectives, including those of people with disabilities and religious groups, be included in the discussion. And they stress that they are not calling for a moratorium on genome editing of somatic cells, which would not affect future generations.
In the meantime, other CRISPR research would continue, including germline editing for research that doesn’t lead to modified babies, and editing nonheritable (somatic) cells to stamp out diseases.
Source – Nature.com