A Call for Caution Before Genetically Engineering Humans

A Call for Caution Before Genetically Engineering Humans

Mar 19, 2015 12:00 PM

Genetically modified plants and livestock are already a controversial reality. But what about genetically modifying humans? The technology could potentially eradicate certain diseases that run in families such as inherited cancers or debilitating Huntington’s disease.

A group of 18 leaders in the field of genomic engineering have written a perspective to be published in the journal Science Express on March 19, cautioning fellow scientists from going down this path too quickly. They call for a moratorium on genetically engineering changes in human DNA that would be passed to future generations. Before this can happen, they say, scientists, clinicians, and the general public must agree on the best ways to ensure the safety and efficacy of the technology.

“There are good reasons not to do it now: both technical and social,” says Dana Carroll, Ph.D., author on the paper and distinguished professor of biochemistry in the University of Utah School of Medicine. “We need to have a broad discussion to decide under what circumstances would science and society be willing to take such a step.”

A pioneer in the field of genomic engineering, Carroll developed scientific techniques that have made modern day technologies possible. His scientific achievements have earned him accolades in molecular genetics, including the Novitski Prize, and the Herbert A. Sober Lectureship.

The call to action by Carroll and his colleagues comes in response to recent advances– a method called CRISPR-Cas9 – that has made it easier and faster to manipulate DNA in living organisms than ever before. Scientists have already genetically altered monkeys; doing so in humans seems to be the next obvious step.

At the center of discussion is whether it should be permissible to genetically engineer DNA in reproductive cells of the human embryo, or in egg or sperm. So-called germ line modifications change the DNA code permanently, so that, along with other family traits, they will be inherited.

The concern is that the technology will be used for more than altering disease genes. “People may come along who want to change eye color or hair color,” says Carroll. “We don’t want rogue editing for nonbeneficial, even trivial or malevolent purposes.”

Equally worrisome, says Carroll, is that he believes the technology is not yet good enough to use in humans. In addition to intentional changes, it could render secondary, nonspecific alterations in DNA that could have unforeseen consequences.

“If we don’t have sufficient control of the technology, or a firm understanding of the potential consequences of using the technology, we will end up doing more harm than good,” says Carroll.

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A Prudent Path Forward for Genomic Engineering and Germ Line Gene Modification, D. Baltimore, et. al., Science, March 19, 2015

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