A prominent group of 18 scientists and bioethicists from seven countries has called for a global “moratorium” on human germline editing, the creation of heritable changes in sperm, eggs, or embryos. The group, which published a commentary in Nature this week, hopes to influence a long-standing debate that dramatically intensified after China’s He Jiankui announced in November 2018 that he used the genome editor CRISPR to try to alter the genomes of babies to be resistant to the AIDS virus.

Their call, which is endorsed in the same issue of Nature by Francis Collins, director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, is a departure from statements or reports issued earlier by two global summits on genome editing, the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, and the United Kingdom’s Nuffield Council on Bioethics. Those stress the promise of germline editing to help correct some heritable diseases but warn against using it for cognitive or physical “enhancement” of humans. Scientists including Nobel laureate David Baltimore of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena remain opposed to a moratorium. Baltimore, who helped organize the summits, has previously denounced such a ban as “draconian” and “antithetical to the goals of science.”

Any nation that wants to greenlight a germline edit by its scientists, the 18 Natureauthors 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 stress that they are not calling for a moratorium on genome editing of somatic cells, which would not affect future generations.

Nor are they proposing a permanent ban on human germline alterations, but instead a fixed period—5 years, the group suggests—in which governments would pledge not to allow it. This moratorium, they argue, would “provide time to establish an international framework” to proceed, which might include a “coordinating body,” perhaps under the aegis of the World Health Organization (WHO), that would discuss proposals by nations that are considering permitting a specific germline edit.

Major national science academies have already committed to analyze the regulation of germline editing over the next year. And WHO next week will convene its newly formed Expert Advisory Committee on Developing Global Standards for Governance and Oversight of Human Genome Editing.

The Nature co-signatories include CRISPR pioneers Feng Zhang of the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens in Berlin, as well as Nobel laureate Paul Berg of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. Berg and Baltimore helped organize the Asilomar conference in 1975, often viewed as a model for dealing with new and potentially risky biotechnologies. It proposed regulations on recombinant DNA experiments, including bans on work with dangerous pathogens.

Baltimore agrees that germline editing isn’t safe or medically justifiable now, but he sees its promise in sparing humans from disease in the future. “I don’t see the need for, or rationale for, a moratorium,” he says.

Helen O’Neill, a molecular geneticist at University College London who spoke at the November 2018 Hong Kong, China, summit at which He detailed his experiment, notes that a global ban already exists, in effect, because many countries have laws and regulations forbidding human germline editing. “I struggle to see why they felt the need for this statement,” says O’Neill, who worries that a formal moratorium could curtail important research funding.

Eric Lander, president of the Broad Institute and a co-signatory, agrees that something akin to a moratorium is already in place. “The real question is … what should be an ongoing international governance framework for the technology by which nations would decide whether and, if so, when to allow it,” Lander says. “Admit that we have a moratorium and embrace the M-word. We’re trying to force the spotlight on what comes next.”



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