Human gene editing is easier than ever. But is it ethical?

Experts from around the world gathered recently at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., for an international summit on the science, ethics and governance of human gene-editing research. The summit was prompted by new technologies, such as CRISPR-Cas9, that make it easier and cheaper to create permanent, hereditary changes in the human genome.

Charis Thompson

Charis Thompson

Among the speakers at the conference, held Dec. 1 to 3, were UC Berkeley’s Charis Thompson, a former founding director of the Science, Technology and Society Center and chair of gender and women’s studies. Her talk was titled “Governance, Regulation and Control: of Which People, by Which People, for Which People?”

In a post published Dec. 4 on the Canadian bioethics website Impact Ethics, Thompson reviews the debate that took place at the summit — summarizing a range of positions held by those in the “yes” camp (favoring human germline genome editing under the right conditions) and “no” camp.

“The most pressing task of the summit was to consider whether human germline genome editing should be allowed,” she writes. Edits to small segments of DNA in germ cells (eggs, sperm, stem cells or some very early embryos) might cure severe diseases in the resulting individual, but “would be carried into all the cells of a resulting child, and then passed on to future generations through sexual reproduction…. Somatic human gene editing, on the other hand, treats an already existing patient for the disease symptoms she has, raising far fewer concerns.”

Read Charis Thompson’s post, “The human germline genome editing debate,” on Impact Ethics.