What can be done to prevent another CRISPR crisis?

CRISPR-associated protein Cas9 (white) from Staphylococcus aureus based on Protein Database ID 5AXW. Credit: Thomas Splettstoesser (Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 4.0)

The public announcement last fall from China regarding gene editing on human embryos, conducted without the benefit of scientific review or ethical debate, was met with worldwide disdain. It also has raised global concerns that more rigorous standards must be established to guide further research efforts in germline gene therapy, according to a new article publishing on April 30 in the open-access journal PLOS Biology by medical ethicist Arthur L. Caplan, Ph.D., founding director of the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU School of Medicine.

In the article, Caplan recounts the fateful November 25, 2018, press conference in Hong Kong at which He Jiankui, a scientist at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzen, China, announced that he had created the first babies from germline-edited . A group of more than 100 prominent Chinese scientists subsequently declared He's work "outside the boundaries of acceptable science", and the Chinese Vice-Minister of Science and Technology labeled the research "illegal and unacceptable." The Chinese government shut down He's research almost immediately.

"There is little room for anything other than vociferous condemnation of He's announcement," Caplan says in the article.

But Caplan also points out a major flaw in global research that the case brings to light. "A deep understanding of the mechanisms and potential side-effects of embryo editing is an absolute pre-requisite to any further discussion of its implementation," he says. "At present, human embryonic editing, particularly in regard to how DNA is repaired, following an induced break, is poorly understood."

So, what can be done to ensure that germline gene editing meets acceptable standards? Many are calling for moratoriums, but these existed when He's rogue experiment was done. Caplan offers a series of recommendations in the article that provide some means of enforcement, such as explicit management of conflict of interests by the overseeing organization of the research; banning "exclusive" rights to research results to all media; no publication of improperly reviewed findings involving embryos; enhanced informed consent from to ensure subject independence; involvement of qualified and properly trained internal review boards and ethics committees; and establishment of a public database for all related documentation.

Caplan acknowledges that there may be further recommendations to be made—but that the point is clear. "It is not sufficient to establish that germline research ought to be temporarily halted or cautiously proceed despite ethical lapses," he says. "Regulation and penalties need sufficient bite to assure the public that renegade science has no future in designing our descendants."

Explore further

'CRISPR babies': What does this mean for science and Canada?

More information: Caplan A (2019) Getting serious about the challenge of regulating germline gene therapy. PLoS Biol 17(4): e3000223. doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.3000223
Journal information: PLoS Biology

Citation: What can be done to prevent another CRISPR crisis? (2019, April 30) retrieved 21 October 2019 from https://medicalxpress.com/news/2019-04-crispr-crisis.html
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Apr 30, 2019
Crisis? What crisis? The only way to find out is to try. Millions of willing subjects out there. Politicians and parasite philo academies should mind their own business. THEYRE the true crisis. A crisis of lies and deception that threatens to retard progress and cost lives.

May 01, 2019
Let the Chinese apply their own ethical standards. They do not need the West to impose its own Luddite vision of the future upon them.

May 01, 2019
Unfortunately few if any areas has protections against cheaters. He's work has been generally deemed flawed. But that aside, those recommendations are generally good if they can be established. (Global documentation databases are hard to make.)

Let the Chinese apply their own ethical standards.

In this case, no problem, they seem to agree he's work is flawed and should not been done, for such reasons that a) it *was* unethical, even if it had worked, and b) public opinion disaster.

Global ethical standards for medicine - Hippocratic oath, say - and now science are useful, with or without public appeal coming into it.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more