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Scientists demand a prohibition on human genetic modification

Published Mar 16th, 2019 9:01AM EDT

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It’s now been several months since Chinese geneticist He Jiankui announced to the world that he had genetically modified human embryos which were then carried to term and resulted in twin girls. His work, which has come under harsh criticism from every corner of the scientific community, landed him in state detention and he may even face the death penalty once all is said and done.

He’s fate aside, a group of genetics researchers are now demanding stricter regulations on human genetic modification, begging their colleagues to join them in an agreement to avoid such work until more can be learned about the potential medical and ethical risks of gene modification in humans.

“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 group, which includes 18 scientists from around the world, write in a new paper published in Nature. “By ‘global moratorium’, we do not mean a permanent ban. Rather, we call for the establishment of an international framework in which nations, while retaining the right to make their own decisions, voluntarily commit to not approve any use of clinical germline editing unless certain conditions are met.”

The team notes that discussions of the various issues related to human genetic modification be held well in advance of any nation building out its own framework of regulations to allow such work. The moratorium the researchers are suggesting could be adopted for the long term by countries that wish to avoid the potentially risky research for the foreseeable future, while other nations may instead decide to allow it if certain conditions are met.

“No clinical application of germline editing should be considered unless its long-term biological consequences are sufficiently understood — both for individuals and for the human species,” the scientists insist.

We’ve reached an interesting point in the history of genetic science. Researchers now have the tools and knowledge to be able to genetically edit human embryos, but doing so could lead to unforeseen consequences and no reputable scientists are willing to risk actual human lives in order to find out. That’s not to say that the future of the human race doesn’t include genetic modification that could prevent diseases or certain conditions, but we’re just not yet in a position to make that call.