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OPINION: Gene editing of human embryos. Red lines

Institutional
27 Nov 18

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The announcement made yesterday by the Chinese scientist He Jiankui that twins Lulu and Nana had been born after editing their DNA has brought about a storm of criticisms and generated alarm among the scientific community and society. (*Chinese researcher claims first gene-edited babies. Associated Press). The gene editing of embryos may become (or not) a reality in the future, but right now it is clearly premature.

The Chinese researcher He Jiankui has crossed all the red lines because before this technology can go any further, ethical issues have to be debated at length and certain technical aspects need to be addressed.

With respect to the technology, the tools to alter gene inheritance in humans without the risk of unintentionally altering other genes are not suffciently accurate. We still cannot predict the long-term effects of these modifications, which can take time to become apparent. Furthermore, gene editing in embryos is transmitted to future generations, to people who haven’t agreed to these changes.  

This last question falls into the field of ethics. There is still no consensus regarding whether we should move forward in gene editing in embryos. If consensus were to be reached and a decision taken to go ahead, we would have to establish under what circumstances this would be allowed. In my opinion, in order to avoid the possible temptation ask for “customised children”, gene editing in human embryos should only be performed in dramatic cases and should be subjected to strict legal requirements.

By Elena Sancho, research associate, IRB Barcelona.

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Created in 2005 by the Generalitat de Catalunya (Government of Catalonia) and University of Barcelona, IRB Barcelona is a Severo Ochoa Centre of Excellence, a seal that was awarded in 2011. The institute is devoted to conducting research of excellence in biomedicine and to transferring results to clinical practice, thus improving people’s quality of life, while simultaneously promoting the training of outstanding researchers, technology transfer, and public communication of science. Its 28 laboratories and eight core facilities address basic questions in biology and are orientated to diseases such as cancer, metastasis, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and rare conditions. IRB Barcelona is an international centre that hosts 400 employees and more than 30 nationalities. It is located in the Barcelona Science Park. IRB Barcelona is a CERCA center, and a member of the Barcelona Institute of Science and Technology (BIST).