Preventing the Births of More “CRISPR Babies”

In the wake of the news that twin girls were born in China with DNA altered by CRISPR, the U.S. National Academy of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences are planning an international commission to discuss the most controversial use of the technology: germline editing. This application involves altering the DNA of an embryo, sperm, or egg in such a way as to make it heritable by that individual’s children.

Experts say criteria for germline editing need to address how thoroughly to scrutinize a genome for both intended and unintended edits. The criteria in the 2017 report on this topic were not clear and stated that germline editing can be performed only in the “absence of reasonable alternatives” to address a “serious disease,” and if safety is paramount.

He Jiankui, PhD, the scientist who altered the DNA of human embryos to make them resistant to HIV, claimed he met all those criteria. However, according to Chinese state media, Dr. Jiankui was found by Chinese authorities to have “seriously violated” state regulations. Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen cancelled his contract, and he could face criminal charges for forging ethics documents and using unsafe and ineffective gene-editing methods.

Sources: STAT News, January 24, 2019; The New York Times, January 23, 2019.