4 areas of debate on 1st human embryo genetic modification paper

Last week was a big one for the life sciences in that we saw the milestone of the first ever published paper reporting genetic modification of human embryos (see here and here).

It was one of those situations where we knew it was coming, but it was still a jolt.

Not surprisingly this event sparked intense discussion and even some arguments.human genetic modification

Below are 4 areas of contention at this moment and some additional thoughts on them. I value diverse views so please weight in with comments.

A big deal or a mountain out of a molehill?

My own view is that this paper is on the one hand a very big deal because it crossed the line and reported the production of GM human embryos. This certainly paves the way for more such research and papers.

On the other hand, the actual research methods and data reported were not especially surprising, groundbreaking, or enabling of other new research. So perhaps it was not such a big deal in that latter sense?

Did use of non-viable embryos largely negate ethical concerns?

The non-viability of the embryos is notable and that does make a difference, but I’m not sure how much that changed the line that was crossed in the long run. My sense is that reports of editing of near-normal human embryos (e.g. normal except containing a single mutation to be targeted) will just be a matter of time.

I support the idea of gene editing research in vitro on human embryos, but only in certain cases with specific oversight and bioethics training. I also feel that there should be some compelling rationale for doing the work in embryos versus just say a human cell line.

Disrespect to oversight in China?

Not really.

Yes, some of us pointed out that there are different ethical and regulatory paradigms at work in China compared to say the US or the European Union, but that’s just a fact. I don’t see why that should be some kind of taboo topic.

For instance, Mitalipov’s Mitogenomics, which is operating in the cutting edge and controversial area of 3-person IVF and mitochondrial transfer, is now set to do that work in China specifically because of the liberal oversight there related to this work. You can’t do that work in the US, but you can in China. That’s a fact and one that concerns me. Notably you can also do this 3-person IVF research in the UK too and that worries me as well. I have certainly voiced concerns about the 3-person IVF regulatory oversight situation in the UK as well.

It is worth noting that the day after the embryo editing paper came out, a Cell paper came out from a team at the Salk that was very pro-human embryo editing and I raised concerns about that level of enthusiasm for clinic use of human genetic modification technology as well.

You can expect that if a human embryo editing paper comes out of my own home country of the US or other places that I will provide a rigorous critique of it too.

Human embryo editing a non-starter clinically?

This is the most important and contentious area of discussion today.

There certainly are advocates for using germline genetic modification of human embryos to try to prevent any number of genetic diseases and the aforementioned Salk group is just one.

At the same time others think to put it mildly that this is a really bad idea. Edward Lanphier, et al. presented just one example of a case articulated against heritable human genetic modification and they are opposed even to in vitro research in this area. They view this kind of work as dangerous.

A nice NY Times piece by Gina Kolata includes comments from scientists raising additional concerns including stem cell and genetic modification pioneer, Dr. Rudy Jaenisch:

“A pressing question, said Rudolf Jaenisch, an M.I.T. biology professor, is why anyone would want to edit the genes of human embryos to prevent disease. Even in the most severe cases, involving diseases like Huntington’s in which a single copy of a mutated gene inherited from either parent is enough to cause the disease with 100 percent certainty, editing poses ethical problems. Because of the way genes are distributed in embryos, when one parent has the gene, only half of the parent’s embryos will inherit it. With gene editing, the cutting and pasting has to start immediately, in a fertilized egg, before it is possible to know if an embryo has the Huntington’s gene. That means half the embryos that were edited would have been normal — their DNA would have been forever altered for no reason. “It is unacceptable to mutate normal embryos,” Dr. Jaenisch said. “For me, that means there is no application.”

The bottom line at this point in a new week since the embryo editing paper came out is that there is a whole range of opinions on germline human genetic modification as well as about how it has been discussed. I view the fact that these discussions and even arguments are ongoing as a very positive thing even if disagreements can be uncomfortable.

Just a few months ago there was essentially complete silence on germline human genetic modification. Things have changed greatly for the better in terms of the level of dialogue and this will aid in charting a positive course to deal with this new area of biomedical research.

5 thoughts on “4 areas of debate on 1st human embryo genetic modification paper

  1. Thank you. I’ve been looking for information on Chinese research ethics/human subjects policies. Can you point me to any other sources?

  2. It seems to me that it is just a matter of time before technologies get to the point where genetically modified humans (GMH) can be “created”. Do we really want to go there?

    It certainly opens up some interesting new possibilities for warfare. Imagine the creation of a strain of “roundup ready humans” that are resistant to some secretly created pathogen that is fatal to “natural” humans…

    This is a doomsday machine without mutually assured destruction! Makes Dr Strangelove and Planet of the Apes look lame.

    It would make a great movie script — let’s just leave it at that.

  3. Let’s play a thought game. Pretend that we can reliably edit our genome with total certainty about the outcome of each edit. What would we change ourselves into?

    The process seems to be a lot like computer programming, to me. We might have the corporate models for genome development. (Think Apple, MicroSoft and Google corporate models for computer software development.) I’d see corporate developers making people who were efficient in useful but limited ways — I suspect they would be a bit boring, very standardized but with irritating incompatibilities…

    Then there would be the wild west of the free genome developers. (Think linux and the free software foundation.) Well, everyone would have their own idea so they’d be forever forking their genomes. And the more their genomes forked the more forked their ideas would get.

    The surprising thing about the world of software is the extent to which all that code can all be made to fit together in some way or another — but it’s more like a community of species than the community of a species.

    Perhaps that tells us what to expect if ever we play the game of genetic coding.

  4. Urgh, perhaps I got the biological lingo wrong? Should it be:
    “but it’s more an assemblage of many species than the community of a species.”

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