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  • Washington Highlights

    Scientists Call for International Moratorium on Heritable Gene Editing in Humans

    Anurupa Dev, Director, Science Policy & Strategy
    Stephen Heinig, Director, Science Policy

    A March 13 commentary by an international group of leading scientists and ethicists in the journal Nature calls 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 commentary includes 18 authors from seven nations, including Feng Zhang of the United States and Emmanuelle Charpentier of Germany, who are among the pioneers of the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technology. 

    The authors propose the establishment of a limited-term, global ban on clinical use of germline editing, citing five years as a potential time frame, to allow for the development of an international framework that lays out requirements that must be met before any clinical application of the technology. The authors emphasize that any ban would permit continued use of genome editing for research purposes and in laboratory settings, and possible clinical use of the technology in nonreproductive cells.

    The proposal comes in response to news late last year that a scientist in China, He Jiankui, PhD, used CRISPR-Cas9 to edit a gene in human embryos, which were then implanted and resulted in the birth of twins. This application of still untested research was widely denounced by the public and the scientific community, with National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins, MD, PhD, issuing a statement reiterating NIH’s ban on gene-editing technologies in human embryos and saying that the work “flout(ed) international ethical norms.”

    Despite ongoing activities from the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, including a 2017 report and two international summits, no mechanism currently exists to ensure an global dialogue on clinical germline editing, thus leading to the calls for an international governance framework.