Cadre of gene-editing biotechs rally against altering DNA that could affect future generations
A contingent of biotechs have joined the clarion call against germline gene editing, citing unresolved safety, ethical, legal and societal issues in this type of research.
Thirteen companies, collectively representing the Alliance for Regenerative Medicine, on Tuesday put out a statement of principles that said while editing of disease-causing DNA within the body’s non-reproductive (somatic) cells should proceed, editing germline cells for human trials should be off-limits, subject for more discussion on the international stage.
The signatory companies include bluebird bio, CRISPR Therapeutics and Sangamo Therapeutics, among a host of others.
The move followed last year’s news that controversial Shenzhen-based researcher Jiankui He genetically edited embryos using CRISPR/Cas9 tools — with intention of inducing HIV resistance — which were implanted and resulted in the birth of twin infant girls, triggering a tempest in scientific circles the world over.
Jim Burns, CEO of Casebia Therapeutics and one of the co-chairs that wrote ARM’s statement, said this to the Financial Times:
Although none of our companies are working on germline therapy, when I talk to people who are not directly involved in the biotechnology business, one of the first questions I get is: ‘Aren’t you worried about designer babies?’ … I am spending more time on this kind of question than at any point in my career.
Globally, guidelines vary widely about the extent (or lack thereof) of germline research — introducing heritable changes to sperm, eggs or embryos — is permitted. Some regions ban it altogether; some allow lab research but not pregnancies (like in the UK); while others have no policies. In the US, the NIH does not fund germline research, but private funding is sanctioned.
In March, an international group of ethicists and researchers, including experts who originally developed CRISPR–Cas9 as a gene-editing tool, called for a moratorium on clinical use of human germline editing until the safety of the technique has been established and a consensus on acceptable use has been reached. The following month, a consortium of scientists, bioethicists, and biotech executives wrote to US HHS secretary Alex Azar, calling for a collaboration on a binding global moratorium on human clinical germline experimentation. The NIH supported the call.