Science Would Like Some Rules for Genome Editing, Please
The ability to edit a genome as easily as cutting-and-pasting with a word processor is quickly becoming a world-changing, moneymaking technology. Just about every scientist working with agrees on that. But as to the rules guiding what they are and aren’t allowed to do with it? That’s a different story.
It’s a story, though, that those researchers are trying to tell—especially this week, at an international meeting in Washington DC that has attracted most of the major players from the US, Europe, and even China, where many of the ethical edge cases have made their way out of labs. That work is on everyone’s minds, from an attempt to work with human embryos last year to last week’s word of customized pet micro-pigs.
The pigs, from the genomics institute BGI in Shenzhen, got a lot of headlines. Everyone loves cute little piggies. But they also caught a lot of international flack.
And more is coming. In April, a group of 40 of the nation’s top researchers met in Beijing to push the federal government to move even faster to develop regulations on what kinds of human related research will or won’t be allowed. The pressure to publish research papers or come up with a new reproductive options for parents is forcing this science. So too, is the fact that it is an incredibly powerful tool, according to Qi Zhou, deputy director of the Institute of Zoology at the Chinese Academy of Science in Beijing.
“It’s the most interesting question in science,” Qi says. “They are already starting to do lots of applications with animal models.” In fact, Chinese scientists are using Crispr techniques on monkeys, pigs, goats, rats, silkworm, and wheat, according to Duanqing Pei, director of the Guangzhou Institutes of Biomedicine and Health, who also was at the Washington meeting. Right now, the Chinese government allows its scientists to create human embryos for research purposes; the NIH does not, and doesn’t fund that kind of work.
Chinese scientists at Monday’s meeting say most of their work is focused on treatments for stubborn diseases such as HIV, hepatitis B, or beta thalassemia, a type of debilitating anemia that is widespread throughout much of South Asia, China, and parts of Africa. More than 1,000 Chinese labs are plunging headfirst into Crispr/Cas9 research, according to Qi.
He says that the Chinese government has been working on a new set of gene editing guidelines for several years that might limit some work on human embryos. “I believe that in the near future, the Chinese government will publish rules that will be based on international conferences and symposiums,” Qi says. They want to be part of the international community—“we are members of the big family,” as he puts it.
But during his presentation to the NAS committee, Qi admitted that enforcement of Chinese biomedical research rules is lax. “In the United States, if you don’t follow the regulations, you get in trouble,” Qi told the assembled scientists in a wood-paneled lecture room. “In China, maybe not.”
That’s exactly the kind of damn-the-torpedoes attitude that has the international scientific community—and the people who regulate it and pay its bills—worried. Nobel laureate David Baltimore of CalTech is heading a National Academies of Science committee that’s planning an even bigger international summit in December. He says that it’s hard to keep track of the speed at which gene-editing science is progressing.
“Somebody does an experiment and suddenly things that were difficult become easy,” Baltimore says. “As we get some experience with humans, we begin to think of things that at the moment we don’t think about. I don’t think that we are trying to specify what we are going to do or not going to do. What we are trying to come up with is general principles.”
Congress wants the NIH, the FDA, and biomedical scientists to come up with new ways to cure disease, but many members share Baltimore’s concerns. “Everyone who has read Brave New World in junior high school or seen Gattaca, now they are realizing that some of this may not be a decade away,” says Bill Foster, a Chicago-area Democrat in the House of Representatives and a member of the House Science Committee. “My main concern is that we react thoughtfully. When some scientists gets out ahead of his skis on this, that we don’t overreact and send it offshore.”
Regulations or not—voluntary or prescriptive—even professional bioethicists believe that it won’t be long before a lab comes up with a viable, edited human embryo. While that kind of work is allowed in China (for research but not clinical purposes) the National Institutes of Health won’t fund such work in the United States. “Part of what we are trying to work out is under what circumstances and who would do it,” says Pilar Ossorio, professor of law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin.
However, Jennifer Doudna, a UC Berkeley cell biologist and one of the discoverers of the Crispr/Cas9 technique, doesn’t believe the scientific community or the general public is prepared for human gene-editing. “But the science is coming at us whether we want it or don’t,” she says. “And given that science is global, we have to be confronting this right now.”