Gene-Editing Humans Edit Statement

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

When scientists who work on gene-editing try to write a position statement on gene-editing, you just know they’re going to be editing it right to the last minute. That’s certainly what happened at the end of the historic International Summit on Human Gene Editing that I’ve been covering this week in Washington, D.C.

The meeting’s advisory group—ten scientists and two ethicists—just released a position statement to summarise their views. David Baltimore from Caltech admitted that though they had been working on it since long before the summit began, they were tweaking it till an hour before its unveiling.

It’s entirely predictable and largely uncontroversial, especially in light of discussions that I’ve summarised here.

Baltimore said that the committee didn’t want to use words like “moratorium” or “ban.” Still, they emphasised that it would be “irresponsible to proceed with and clinical use of germline gene editing”—that is, changing the genes of sperm, eggs, and early embryos in ways that could cascade through future generations—until scientist can work out if it’s safe and efficient to do so, and until society has time to debate the consequences of doing so.

They’re much happier about applications that edit genes in somatic cells—that is, those that stay within a particular individual. An example might include taking immune cells from people with HIV, deleting genes that the virus depends on, and then injecting them back in. These uses can be regulated within existing frameworks. It’s “business as usual,” says Baltimore. Likewise, the committee supports the use of gene-editing technology in basic research, provided no modified embryo is used to start a pregnancy.

Finally, as many here have repeatedly said, everyone needs to talk about this in an “ongoing international forum.” Or, as Baltimore quipped, “No committee has done its work until it appoints the next committee.”