The Corner

Science & Tech

NIH Director’s Call for Human Genetic Engineering Moratorium Is Not Enough

Francis Collins, Director, National Institutes of Health, speaks at the Milken Institute 21st Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California, U.S., April 30, 2018. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

In the face of the rapid development of the most powerful technologies ever invented — CRISPR germline gene editing, “artificial life,” “3-parent” embryos, cloning, etc.–President Trump has been derelict. He hasn’t uttered a single word about whether or how these epochal biotechnologies should be regulated internationally to allow us the best chance of garnering their great benefits, while also limiting the potential for catastrophe.

The highest administration member speaking out on this issue, of whom I am aware, has been NIH Director, Francis Collins. He just published a call in Discover magazine for a five-year moratorium on human germline genetic engineering, that is, making gene changes in human babies that will flow down the generations. From, “We Must Never Allow Our Technology to Eclipse Our Humanity:

Scientists and leaders around the globe have an obligation to consider the appropriate use — if any — of heritable human gene editing. This involves scrutinizing the safety of such experiments, including the risk of unintended mutations, as well as a clear-eyed analysis of actual medical need. In our view, the current arguments — that the benefits outweigh the risks — are surprisingly uncompelling. But our deliberations should not stop there. We must weigh the profound social, ethical and moral issues associated with modifying the germline in ways that could change the human species forever.

Let that last point sink in. Ponder the potentials. Germline gene editing “could change the human species forever.”

Alas, Collins notes, the international science community has not exactly jumped to attention and helped forge binding regulations:

In August, a number of research groups working on gene-editing therapeutics issued a statement asserting heritable gene editing is currently inappropriate for use in human clinical studies. That same month, a group of international research societies convened to discuss recommendations for appropriate research, which are slated for completion in spring of 2020.

Ooh. A statement!

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization’s new expert advisory committee, convened in the wake of [Chinese researcher] He’s [Jiankui] experiments, sidestepped the issue of a moratorium at its August meeting. It did, however, establish a global registry to track all kinds of human gene-editing research and to offer consultation on governance of such technologies.

Again, ooh!

Collins calls for a five-year moratorium on human germline engineering experiments so the world can have a deep conversation:

That discussion has to be inclusive of many societal perspectives. We must never allow our technology to eclipse our humanity. As an interconnected global society, we have a responsibility to ask ourselves some very hard questions about heritable gene editing and the dangers of human hubris. While difficult, this is a debate that we simply cannot afford to postpone.

Agreed! And good for Collins. But unless leaders higher up the food chain engage the question in more amplified media venues than Discover, it will never happen.

China has presented a potential window opportunity for that leadership by imprisoning He for three years for the illegal practice of medicine in manufacturing genetically altered babies — as if his Communist overseers didn’t know what he was doing beforehand. But that scapegoating would be a good pretext for jump-starting the international discussions that need to begin very soon if we are to at least have a hope of avoiding biotech anarchy.

President Trump needs a new agenda to run on for a second term. This issue should be part of it. He should argue for a moratorium in his State of the Union. Love him or hate him, Trump’s words are listened to around the world. Such a mention would at least get people talking about the question.

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