CRISPR in the UK: the world reacts
We round up all the responses to the landmark HFEA ruling on CRISPR
On February 1 2016, the UK’s embryology research regulator delivered a crucial verdict that will forever impact the debate on human gene-editing. After months of deliberation the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority ruled that researchers from London’s Francis Crick Institute could use CRISPR to edit the genes of human embryos as part of research into infertility. Predictably, the media and the internet have exploded, with every pundit and commenter ready with an opinion. Is this the beginning of a glorious age of genomic research? Has the UK jumped the ethical gun? Are we actually witnessing the dawn of Gattaca?
Here is our pick of the commentary, giving you a flavour of what the world has to say about CRISPR. We’ll keep on updating this page as new opinions surface, and if you see anything interesting that we haven’t included send them over the firstname.lastname@example.org!
Thus spake the man himself, in an editorial for Time. The major portion of his article focusses on human enhancement and clinical application, with some choice references to X-men, but his thoughts on the UK ruling are:
“The UK approval of editing human embryos to understand human development has no impact on actual genome editing for disease prevention or human enhancement. Some of the experiments planned at the Crick Institute are simple experiments akin to gene knockouts in mice or other species where CRISPR will be used to cut out a gene to see what happens. They will yield some interesting results, but most, I predict, will be ambiguous or not informative as we have seen in this field before.”
From the blog of major UK charity Cancer Research UK, writer Nick Peel explores the history and the ethics of CRISPR, asking whether the announcement is cause for concern.
“Editing humans – whether for improvements in fertility or to tackle cancer – is a big challenge, with huge responsibilities. If CRISPR is going to help researchers and doctors get there, experts and the public will need to be absolutely sure it’s up to the job. In the meantime, for researchers working day-to-day to study human disease, this ground-breaking new technology looks set to revolutionise our understanding. And that can only be a good thing.”
“We do not know what the consequences will be for future generations – and it will be too late to reverse,” writes Donna Dickenson, Emeritus Professor of Medical Ethics at the University of London in an editorial for UK newspeter The Telegraph.
“The Washington summit called for an international moratorium on germline genetic engineering, saying that it would be “irresponsible to proceed” until the risks could be better addressed. Human germline modification is banned in some 40 countries and was condemned in 1997 by the Council of Europe Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine. Britain is not a signatory to that convention, and the HFEA decision is not breaking any laws, but it is breaching an international consensus.”
Writing in WIRED, Nic Cavell explores the ins and outs of regulation around the world, noting the quirks inherent in the US system (“If a billionaire tech founder wanted to create his own private Gattaca, he could”), and applauds the UK regulatory framework, voicing a belief shared by many in the genetics community that other countries will look to the UK to inform their own regulatory systems.
“With its consistent regulatory structure, the UK can foster innovative thinking while keeping a close eye on the ethical implications of every study.”
Johnjoe McFadden, science author and professor of molecular genetics at the University of Surrey, argues that our ability to ‘play God’ with the genome is far overdue.
“We are indeed playing God with our genes. But it is a good thing because God, nature or whatever we want to call the agencies that have made us, often get it wrong and it’s up to us to correct those mistakes.”
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