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CRISPR gene editing: Why do we need slow science

(MENAFN – Conversation) In a recently published article in nature, a group of prominent researchers and ethics have demanded a moratorium on clinical research using CRISPR / Cas9 gene editing.

This moratorium is about the use of the CRISPR / Cas9 gene editing of the germ line – alteration of hereditary DNA in sperm, eggs or embryos to make genetically modified children.

In other words, this would be a temporary ban on experiments that could lead to more CRISPR children.

Read more: Open the Pandora's book: Editing and its consequences

The document was signed and authored by a number of prominent ethics and researchers, including the CRISPR pioneers Emmanuelle Charpentier (one of the co-discoveries of CRISPR / Cas9) and Feng Zhang (one of the first to use CRISPR in human cells), as well as geneticist Eric Lander and bioethics Françoise Baylis and Jing-Bao Nie.

However, CRISPR researcher Jennifer Doudna (the second co-discovery of the CRISPR / Cas9 system) refused to sign this conversation about a moratorium. She told the Washington Post: "My feeling is, this is effectively just rehashing what has happened for years."

This is a controversial point because the word moratorium has been used sparse by the researchers involved in this research. However, many of the signatories have been vocal about their view of germline gene editing in the past.

By requesting a global moratorium, the signatories do not mean a permanent ban, but rather a temporary one – to enable the development of an international governance framework that surrounds human crawling of shortcuts. Specifically, they propose a five-year moratorium, a time period that is sufficient to enable critical conversations and stakeholder responsibilities.

It is important that they do not require a unanimous decision among the nations either. Countries would be allowed to come up with their own regulations in view of the ethical, scientific, technical and medical considerations of CRISPR / Cas9 germline gene editing.

To slow down science for the common good

CRISPR / Cas9 gene editing has progressed at unprecedented speed, since CRISPR was first used in human cells in vitro in 2013 to claim that the birth of the first genetically modified infant of germline in 2018 was born. This applies a lot, especially when the medical need and the social risks are still being discussed and the safety and effect of the treatments is still largely unknown.

In our opinion, what the authors of the latest natural action request is is slow CRISPR Science. Slow science – a response to the increasing speed and business interest that drives the scientific experiment and "publish or destroy the paradigm" – was built on the concepts of the Slow Food movement.

Slow Food was a direct response to Fast Food, a system where the environment, people and economies were often compromised at the expense of business interests that obviously provided quick and easy food. Ideally, the slow movement does not call "less productivity or efficiency" but for more thoughtful and engaging work is done in the food industry and in science.

In terms of gene editing, slow motion would mean improving non-hereditary gene editing methods in patients prior to experimentation with ethically charged and technically more difficult hereditary reproductive clinical trials (which seem to be driven by profit or the need to be first, rather than community or jointly beneficial).

J. Benjamin Hurlbut, Professor of Biology and Society at Arizona State University, wrote in a Nature commentary in early January 2019:

"To move forward in a positive direction, science must not assume that the destination of a technology should be, but it should follow the direction we, the people, give."

Slow CRISPR science would allow for proper consultation with appropriate stakeholders and the public before the decision was made.

A divided scientific community

Scientific societies do not agree on the moratorium. In fact, a comment published in Science 2015 emphasized a "cautious path forward" and discussed what measures should be taken to ensure the ethical and safe use of this technology.

However, the word moratorium was never used in this document. Furthermore, many of the authors of the 2015 publication have been removed from a moratorium, with much of the organizing committee at the 2018 Human Topics Editing Summit (many were also authors on the Science Science article 2015) who propose a "translational pathway" -based on "broad scientific consensus "on human germline through editing.

This is in direct conflict with the language of the final statement of the Human Gender Editions Summit for 2015, which considered the gene modification "irresponsible" to be irresponsible until relevant security and effectiveness issues were addressed and "broad societal consensus" achieved.

Many have actually skipped the question of how we can do this, rather than, should we do this?

Ultimately, a time period to pause and reflect would allow citizens of each nation to have the important conversation of whether their society tolerates the genetic modification of the germ. Each society must decide for itself whether the rewards outweigh the risks, be informed by the science but are not dictated by it.

Time to get it right

For Canada, the moratorium will have little impact on the CRISPR research activity, since the germline gene modification of embryos is already banned under the 2004 human reproduction act.

Obviously, the efforts are high and the misfortunes of CRISPR's early human health applications can lead to an all-out ban on this technology, which holds such an incredible promise to alleviate human suffering by healing genetic disease.

Therefore, a cautious step in our view is to temporarily pause the gene for the germline gene to allow for a deeper consideration of the risks and benefits. Essentially, this is what these researchers and ethicists are calling for in their proposed moratorium.

They ask for time to pause and reflect. Time to conduct appropriate consultations with relevant stakeholders and (very important) the public in an effort to achieve broad societal consensus. And finally, time to develop the most robust and accurate gene editing tools so that when we use CRISPR / Cas9 to rewrite the source code for humanity, we get it right.

    Bioethics CRISPR CRISPR / Cas9 Germline editing Research moratorium Genre editing


CRISPR gene editing: Why do we need slow science

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