Human germline genome editing may be permissible following further research, according to a controversial report released on Tuesday by the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the National Academy of Medicine.
The report outlines several criteria that should be met before allowing germline editing clinical trials to proceed. The criteria include the need for strict clinical oversight, credible pre-clinical data on risk and health benefits, and the assurance of “long-term multigenerational follow-up”.
Germline genome editing is an ethically contentious area of research, with many experts concerned that defective genes will be passed onto future generations. Unlike human genome editing, which takes place in children or adults and cannot be inherited, germline genome editing takes place in gametes or embryos and the altered genes can be inherited.
The committee acknowledged ethical concerns surrounding the research, but suggested an approach of “caution” rather than “prohibition”. The authors outlined a set of principles that should guide government research policy, including the ‘promotion of well-being’, ‘transparency’, and the exercise of ‘due care’. Trials should only be conducted for “treating or preventing serious disease or disabilities”.
Experts were divided over the report.
Eric Lander of the Broad Institute said that the report struck an appropriate balance between regulation and research: “They have closed the door to the vast majority of germline applications and left it open for a very small, well-defined subset. That’s not unreasonable in my opinion”.Marcy Darnovsky of the Center for Genetics and Society was “deeply disappointed”: “Although [the recommendations] are couched in apparently cautionary language, they actually constitute a green light for proceeding with efforts to modify the human germline — that is, to engineer the genes and traits that are passed on to future children and generations.”
Winston Churchill was once voted the “greatest Briton of all time” in a BBC poll, edging out Isambard Kingdom Brunel (who?), Lady Diana, Shakespeare and John Lennon. Now, in addition to his gifts as a statesman and politician, orator and historian (and artist), we have been reminded that he helped to popularise science as well.
As reported in Nature, an historian has discovered an 11-page manuscript which Churchill penned in 1939 but never published, speculating about life on other planets. It turns out that the great man was deeply interested in modern science and followed developments keenly. Gazing at the gathering storm, he wrote pessimistically:
“I, for one, am not so immensely impressed by the success we are making of our civilization here that I am prepared to think we are the only spot in this immense universe which contains living, thinking creatures, or that we are the highest type of mental and physical development which has ever appeared in the vast compass of space and time.”
But despite the reminder that Churchill was a fan of science, it’s also good to remember that he believed that there were moral limits to science. In one of his most famous speeches, he foresaw dark days for the world if Germany were to win the War:
If we can stand up to [Hitler], all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world ... will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, "This was their finest hour."
Science, so Churchill believed, was fascinating, but not good in itself. It had to be governed by morality, lest it become “perverted”. It’s not a bad reminder for us, three generations on, as we enter an era of genetic engineering.
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