This Week, World Summit on Altering Human Genes Explores Ethical Limits

Sara Reardon, Scientific American, November 30, 2015

A large and international meeting on the ethics of human-genome editing is poised to begin–and researchers are curious about how perceived differences in attitudes will play out.

“We’re hoping to sort of take the temperature of the world,” says David Baltimore, the virologist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena who is chairing the International Summit on Human Gene Editing. It runs December 1–3 in Washington DC.

Jointly organized by the US National Academy of Sciences, the US National Academy of Medicine, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the UK Royal Society, the meeting is expected to draw representatives from more than 20 countries, including India, Sweden and Nigeria.

The popularity of the genome-editing tool CRISPR–Cas9, which uses bacterial enzymes to cut genomes in precise spots to disrupt or repair troublesome genes, has sparked an ethical debate–and many believe that the time is ripe for an international discussion.

In January, Baltimore and a small group of scientists gathered in Napa, California, to discuss issues surrounding genome editing, including rumours that researchers had already edited human embryos. Some consider the editing of any reproductive cell as contentious because the changes could be passed to future generations. Concerns escalated in April, when researchers in China announced that they had edited human embryos–although they had deliberately used non-viable embryos that could not result in a live birth.

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Zhihong Xu, a plant biologist at Peking University who will represent the Chinese Academy of Sciences at the meeting, is curious about whether perceived differences in attitude–in particular between the United States and China–are real.  “I believe that this is an issue for all of us to consider seriously together,” he says.

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