An international commission, co-chaired by Hertford’s Professor Dame Kay Davies, has concluded that the genetic editing of human embryos is not yet safe for clinical use.
The commission is a partnership between the Royal Society, the US National Academy of Medicine and the US Academy of Sciences and is co-chaired by Kay Davies and Richard Lifton, President of New York’s Rockefeller University. The 18 members from 10 nations were tasked with developing a framework for assessing potential clinical applications of heritable human genome editing, following a controversial announcement in 2018 that twins had been born from edited embryos in China. At that time the broad consensus of the scientific and clinical communities was that it was premature and irresponsible to undertake such genome editing; published this week, the commission’s final report supports this view.
The process of heritable genome editing makes alterations to genetic material of human eggs, sperm, or any cells that lead to their development, including the cells of early embryos. These alterations can therefore be passed down to future generations, raising not only scientific and medical considerations but also a host of ethical, moral, and societal issues. The commission’s report recognises that extensive dialogue is needed before countries decide whether to permit clinical use of heritable human genome editing. If a nation decides that such interventions are permissible, initial uses should be limited to the prevention of serious monogenic diseases such as cystic fibrosis, thalassemia, sickle cell anemia, and Tay-Sachs disease, the report says.
“Should they ever be used, it is vitally important that these technologies are used for medically justified interventions, based on a rigorous understanding of how the pathogenic variant leads to disease,” said Davies, Dr Lee’s Professor of Anatomy at Hertford and Co-Director of the MDUK Oxford Neuromuscular Centre. She continued: “more research is needed into the technology of genome editing in human embryos, to ensure that precise changes can be made without undesired off-target effects. International cooperation and open discussion of all aspects of genome editing will be essential.”
Prof. Dame Kay Davies discusses her work on the report on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme at 2:52:45.