Scientists Push For Moratorium On Gene-Edited Babies

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An international team of 18 scientists published a paper in Nature that calls for a global moratorium on new gene-edited babies. The team is comprised of some of the world’s most prominent scientists from seven different countries and includes some of the inventors of CRISPR, the popular gene-editing tool.

“We call for a global moratorium on all clinical uses of human germline editing — that is, changing heritable DNA (in sperm, eggs or embryos) to make genetically modified children,” the team wrote in the paper.

According to NPR, the call was driven by the actions of He Jiankui, the Chinese biophysics researcher that used CRISPR to create the first-ever gene-edited babies by altering the DNA of twin girls in their embryos. Although the editing was conducted to protect the girls from the AIDS virus, his actions generated widespread backlash from the scientific community.

However, CNN reported that the ban wouldn’t apply to certain forms of genetic modification, including editing for research purposes or to treat diseases. The team also clarified that the ban wouldn’t be permanent, and its purpose is to create an “international framework” to guide nations in their work in genetic modification.

Specifically, the scientists propose that each country declare a moratorium — which is a temporary prohibition — on scientists that are attempting to create babies with genetically modified DNA. They recommend that each moratorium last for about five years.

Thus far, the proposal has generated a fairly positive response from the scientific community. Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, co-wrote an article that supports the call for a ban.

“The philosophical and theological consequences of re-writing our own instruction book are sufficiently major that somebody like me — who generally is opposed to the idea of moratoriums — feels that it’s time to stop and look very carefully at the pros and cons.”

But not everyone agrees — some scientists believe that a moratorium is not the best course of action. For example, Beth Thompson, head of the biomedical research nonprofit UK and EU Policy at the Wellcome Trust, believes that national laws over genetic modification must be created by public consultations that are informed by scientific advancements.

Sarah Norcross, the director of the nonprofit Progress Educational Trust, also disagrees with the paper. In particular, she believes that people like Jiankui are not deterred by prohibition and act in ways that are not ethical regardless of regulations.

As of now, it’s unclear if the moratorium will be enacted or, if it is, whether it will be useful in achieving its goals.