Gene editing of human embryos not performed under appropriate ethical approval

27 November 2018
It has been reported today that Chinese scientists have performed gene editing of human embryos as a part of in vitro fertilization (IVF). The embryos were then transplanted in the mother, resulting in the birth of two babies. The claim is unverified, was not subject to scientific scrutiny and has triggered condemnation from the Chinese scientific community for proceeding with such unproven experimentation without appropriate ethical approval.

Professor Melissa Little, Program Leader of Stem Cells Australia, noted that this form of gene editing – entitled CRISPR-mediated genome editing – is now a powerful and commonly used tool to modify isolated human cells for the purposes of modelling and understanding disease, but that the use of such technologies during fertility treatment is not legally allowed within Australia. 

‘The genome editing of an embryo, while this one day may be very powerful, is very premature and is not allowed within the Australian legal framework governing the manipulation of human embryos,’ said Professor Little. ‘The release of sensational claims without an appropriate ethical approval process or any capacity to objectively validate the science is a very dangerous precedent’, she said. 

The application of nuclear genome editing technology in the laboratory provides tremendous opportunities to understand human biology and disease, but any clinical application to human germline modification or human embryos used in fertility treatment should not go forward at the present time without careful deliberation on the significant ethical, societal, and safety considerations involved.

‘While the technique can be used in the laboratory, the process of cutting that comes with gene editing is not precise and can create mutation as well as correcting it. Any such mutations also have the potential to be present in the germ cells of the baby, resulting in an ability to pass these on to the next generation. In contrast to this, modifying a gene in an adult (somatic) cell type in the laboratory and carefully checking that the editing has worked before returning the cell to a consenting patient has fewer ethical concerns. This distinction is likely unclear to the general public,’ she said. ‘Hence, while the technology may move to being safe and appropriate, the time to discuss this technology with the community is now so that we can advance the science with confidence and community trust.’

The President of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, Professor Doug Melton, said ‘our Society supports laboratory-based research that involves editing of the nuclear genomes of human sperm, eggs, or embryos, but that is only when it is performed under rigorous review and oversight, as suggested in our international guidelines. We do not support any clinical application of human germline or embryo editing at this time.’