The World Health Organization has issued its first global recommendations on human genome editing aimed at ensuring these public health tools are ethically sound and of benefit to all people around the world.
Exciting advances are being made in human genome editing. This technology has the potential to treat and cure diseases and prevent genetic disorders.
For example, somatic gene therapies, which involve modifying a patient’s DNA, have been successfully used to treat HIV and sickle cell disease. Scientists say the technique also could vastly improve treatment for a variety of cancers.
However, these technologies also involve risks as certain germline and heritable human genome editing can alter the genome of human embryos and pass this on to future generations in possibly unpredictable ways. The WHO committee agrees there should be a hold on germline editing until the safety implications are better known.
Scientists also express ethical concerns about this technology, which they say could be used to create so-called "designer babies,” endowed with special skills and physical attributes.
Professor at the Francis Crick Institute in Britain, Robin Lovell Badge is one of 18 Committee members advising the World Health Organization. The Committee has been working over the past two years on regulations for appropriately harnessing this technology.
During this period, he says several potentially dangerous experiments have been proposed in places such as Russia, Ukraine and Turkey. He says peer pressure from many eminent scientists who opposed these risky ventures stopped them from going ahead.
“Peer pressure is really important. But I think more formal mechanisms of whistleblowing, whatever you want to call it we are proposing in our report should really bring together all the different mechanisms that can be used to prevent inappropriate uses of technology,” he said.
The committee has issued a long list of recommendations to govern the safe, effective, and ethical use of human genome editing and that will benefit people in poor and rich countries alike.
For example, it notes intellectual property tends to favor research institutes in rich countries, who make a great deal of money off their patents. The committee proposes that intellectual property derived from human genome editing be applicable also in the poor countries that suffer most from diseases such as sickle cell anemia.