Professor Jennifer Doudna at the Royal Society admissions day in London in 2016. (Photo: The Royal Society)

One year on from the birth of world’s first CRISPR-edited babies in China, Jennifer Doudna, writes in Science what this and the ensuing controversy has meant for the field and society’s perception of the technology, as well as to outline what should be done next.

Doudna used the article to call for:

  1. More active discussion and debate around human germline editing.
  2. Urgent action to put in place appropriate regulation.
  3. More serious consequences for defying established restrictions, including “at a minimum, loss of funding and publication privileges”.

She goes on to add that “ensuring responsible use of genome editing will enable CRISPR technology to improve the well-being of millions of people and fulfil its revolutionary potential.”

Doudna has every reason to care deeply about this issue. Along with her collaborator Emmanuelle Charpentier, she is widely acknowledged for being the first to demonstrate the utility of the Cas9 protein for precise genome editing. The impact of their research is considered to be some of the most significant in biology to date.

Prior to shock news in October last year of the work of “rogue” scientist, He Jiankui, the technology had been reported to be used only to edit selected genes in animal models and somatic (non-sex) human cells. By using CRISPR-Cas9 to edit human embryos, introducing heritable genetic changes, the Chinese group are largely deemed to have crossed an ethical line.

The wider fear is that this is one of many instances where a line has been crossed that have not been reported on, and may represent a significant amount of questionable CRISPR research that is happening behind closed doors. Further unethical CRISPR research and clinical activity could delay or even derail the incredible potential of this technology.

Since it’s invention, Jennifer Doudna has been an advocate for caution and ethical use of the technology, especially in human embryos, until proven to be safe. In relation to the concerns about potential impact of the work on the twin’s quality of life and their susceptibility to other diseases, Doudna says; “although human embryo editing is relatively easy to achieve, it is difficult to do well and with responsibility for lifelong health outcomes.”

Doudna adds, “…the rapidly advancing genome editing toolbox will soon make it possible to introduce virtually any change to any genome with precision, and the temptation to tinker with the human germ line is not going away.”

For the full editorial from Jennifer Doudna, click here.