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Gene Editing: Group Says OK Do It, But Be Careful

DNA double helix Laguna Design / Getty Images

There's no reason to stop scientists from doing gene editing, experts agreed Thursday, but researchers need to be careful and no one's ready yet to do "germline" editing that could be passed to future generations.

Experts and advocates wrapped up a three-day meeting on the subject with an agreement to keep shining a light on the research, with open discussion about what is and isn't possible and what's responsible to do.

The meeting, sponsored by the national science academies of the U.S., Britain and China, has no power to make anyone do anything. But the organizers managed to get broad buy-in from many, if not most, of the researchers who know how to do genetic manipulation for medical purposes.

As scientists so often say, more research is needed.

"Intensive basic and preclinical research is clearly needed and should proceed, subject to appropriate legal and ethical rules and oversight, on technologies for editing genetic sequences in human cells; the potential benefits and risks of proposed clinical uses, and understanding the biology of human embryos and germline cells," the final statement reads.

"If, in the process of research, early human embryos or germline cells undergo gene editing, the modified cells should not be used to establish a pregnancy."

Gene editing is a much more precise method for genetic engineering. But it's also cheaper and easier for non-experts to do. That's what's worried some experts, because it might now be more tempting than it was before to try and permanently change animals, including humans.

Gene therapy is already being tested in a few patients, and there's no reason to stop the use of gene editing to try and correct diseases such as immune deficiencies, the group said.

But germline editing - manipulating an embryo so that the genetic changes are permanent and could be passed along to future children - is something different.

"It would be irresponsible to proceed with any clinical use of germline editing unless and until the relevant safety and efficacy issues have been resolved, based on appropriate understanding and balancing of risks, potential benefits, and alternatives, and there is broad societal consensus about the appropriateness of the proposed application," the group said.

Not only is it possible to make a mistake that could haunt generations, but someone might be tempted to coerce people who may not understand the implications to have a little genetic "enhancement", they said.

Experts pointed out at the conference that it's not really possible to do that just yet. For one thing, traits such as intelligence or strength are not controlled by single genes.

"Moreover, any clinical use should proceed only under appropriate regulatory oversight," the statement adds.

"At present, these criteria have not been met for any proposed clinical use: the safety issues have not yet been adequately explored; the cases of most compelling benefit are limited; and many nations have legislative or regulatory bans on germline modification."

The U.S. does not have such laws and while federal funds may not be used to manipulate embryos in that way, there's no limit on what people can do using private funding.

The science academies said they are happy to sponsor ongoing discussion.

"We stand ready to establish a continuing forum for assessment of the many scientific, medical, and ethical questions surrounding the pursuit of human gene-editing applications," they said in a joint statement.

"This is an important moment in human history and we have a responsibility to provide all sections of society with an informed basis for making decisions about this technology, especially for uses that would affect generations to come."