Less than one month after a team of Chinese researchers revealed that they had for the first time genetically altered a human embryo, the US National Institutes of Health has announced a ban on funding for any research that involves altering the human germline.
“Genomic editing is already widely studied in a variety of organisms,” NIH director Dr. Francis S. Collins said in a statement, noting that the gene-editing technique used by the Chinese team, CRISPR/Cas9, has allowed researchers to “more easily understand the genetic causes” of mouse models of disease, and was being used to develop “the next generation of antimicrobials.”
Despite those benefits, however, Dr. Collins explicitly stated that the agency “will not fund any use of gene-editing technologies in human embryos. The concept of altering the human germline in embryos for clinical purposes has been debated over many years from many different perspectives, and has been viewed almost universally as a line that should not be crossed.”
“Strong arguments against” conducting such research
In the aforementioned Chinese study, a team led by Junjiu Huang, a gene-function researcher at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, used what they called “non-viable” human embryos and used CRISPR/Cas9 to cleave the endogenous β-globin gene (HBB) in tripronuclear zygotes. A paper detailing their work was published in the journal Protein & Cell.
Huang’s team said their work highlighted “the pressing need to further improve the fidelity and specificity of the CRISPR/Cas9 platform,” demonstrating there are serious obstacles to overcome before these techniques can be used in medical applications. It also set off what Science called “a firestorm of controversy around the world,” leading to a call for a moratorium on such work.
In his statement, Dr. Collins said that “advances in technology have given us an elegant new way of carrying out genome editing,” but that there were “strong arguments against engaging” in such activities. According to Engadget, he referred to unpredictable changes to the human gene line, a lack of current medical applications for the technique, and the numerous regulatory issues.
Other issues include “the serious and unquantifiable safety issues” and “ethical issues presented by altering the germline in a way that affects the next generation without their consent,” the NIH director added. In short, without what Engadget calls “a real, compelling need to edit the human genome,” the US biomedical research facility will not fund any such projects.