Views on the News: Gene Editing
In an April 2 interview with Science News, Nobel laureate David Baltimore, Ph.D., argued that putting a temporary ban on human gene editing, meant to improve the technology and foster a better understanding of the science and its ethical questions, would not work. Baltimore argues that the ban would fail to adapt to new discoveries and would not allow for any continued discussions of the ethics of gene editing. He instead calls for a registry of all gene-related procedures and events. What are your thoughts on Baltimore’s view? Do you think there are any alternatives to a moratorium on gene editing that would take Baltimore’s concerns into account?
Prof. Brendan Cline (PHIL)
Ultimately, an outright ban on germline gene editing in humans is not feasible. The incentives for labs or countries to circumvent any ban would simply be too strong. So, in the long run, the important question is: How should human gene editing be regulated? If safety were the only ethical concern, then a flexible policy that’s responsive to ongoing developments would be reasonable. However, many harbor deep concerns about how gene editing—especially for non-medical purposes—will impact our society, even if it’s made perfectly safe. For example, some are concerned that editing will amplify existing inequalities, or encourage unhealthy attitudes towards children. Perhaps some of these worries are misplaced. But until we’ve worked out policies to protect against some of the more troubling potential outcomes, and taken steps to forge greater consensus, it strikes me as appropriate to severely constrain human gene editing for now.
Brendan Cline is the Florence and Levy Kay Fellow in Philosophy and Neuroscience, specializing in metaethics, moral psychology, and environmental ethics.
Haley Director ’20
I mostly disagree with Baltimore's view about the ban not being effective. I think that the ban would work in that it would increase discussions of the ethics of human gene editing and allow scientists to gain a deeper understanding of gene editing and how it works, but I don't think that it would increase accessibility to the common person interested in engaging in gene editing. I think in addition to his suggestion of instituting a registry for all gene-related procedures and events, there needs to be more accessible and easily understandable information available to the public, and this can only be done if there is no ban on human gene editing. I believe that the ban would only work if new information was continually released to scientists and consumers in easily understandable language and for multiple resources, including geneticists, researchers, and genetic counselors, to be consulted throughout the process.
Haley Director ’20 is a Biology, Chemistry, and Hispanic Studies triple major and plans to enter the field of genetic counseling.
Brenda Lemos (Graduate School of Arts and Sciences)
A call for a moratorium by scientists laid out in the Lander, et al. 2019 Nature publication addresses real concerns in gene editing and outlines, what I believe to be appropriate restrictions for the use of the CRISPR technology. There is a general scientific consensus that we do not fully understand the off-target effects of gene editing; accordingly, we should not edit germ line cells that are intended to be used for in vitro fertilization (IVF). However, I don’t think an international ban can be enforced. Yet I do empathize with some of Baltimore’s concerns; particularly, that a ban at a government level could hinder scientific progress, since there are clear examples where science has been regulated by social or religious beliefs rather than empirical scientific data. Still, if gene-edited children are born, they should not be entered into a database, instead, they should be closely monitored by their own doctor and bigger conclusions/concerns shared anonymously amongst scientists.
Brenda Lemos is a Ph.D. candidate at Brandeis University studying CRISPR/Cas9 mediated repair and protein regulation during the DNA damage checkpoint in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
Danielle Gallagher (GSAS)
Neither of these routes would prevent a rogue scientist like Dr. He from bringing a genetically modified embryo to term. The moratorium on human editing could easily go from a “temporary” safety measure to a permanent ban – just look at all the restrictions placed on studying embryos when politics got involved. However, the proposed registry would only monitor edited children over time to study the long-term effects. Most scientists are conscious of the dangers with germline editing and are unwilling to implant an edited embryo. This kind of registry would also violate a child’s right to privacy from the moment they are born. Right now, the only way to know current scientific work is through publications once completed. However, in the case of gene-editing, more transparency of all on-going work, whether that embryo will be implanted or not, should be considered to allow for continued research in a promising field.
Danielle Gallagher is a Ph.D. candidate in molecular and cell biology and is a researcher in James Haber’s lab specializing in mechanisms of DNA double strand break repair.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated that Haley Director '20 is a member of the genetic counseling program, in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. A correction was made saying that Director plans to enter the field, as she is still an undergraduate.