Sci&Tech Editor Leah Renz discusses the implications of the Third International Summit for Human Genome Editing
Human genome editing in embryos that lead to pregnancy is illegal in a vast majority of countries, including the UK. In 2018, a Chinese researcher was the first to edit the genome of a pair of twins to remove the harmful CCR5 gene which enables HIV to infect cells. Jiankui He was sentenced to three years jail time, and a fine of 3 million RMB Yuan (approximately 360,000 GPB), although he has now returned to research.
The potential of gene-editing is vast, but so too are the ethical implications. The scientific community has remained wary of gene-editing humans because the results are drastic and permanent, and will be passed down to offspring.
In September of 2022, a citizens’ jury consisting of 21 people from a diverse range of ethnic, socio-economic and educational backgrounds with experience of a genetic condition came together to discuss the question: ‘Are there any circumstances under which a UK Government should consider changing the law to allow intentional genome editing of human embryos for serious genetic conditions?’. Over four days, jurors gave testimony and debated the question. In the end, the jurors voted 17 to 4 in favour of the UK government considering a change of law. In 2022, a poll commissioned by the fertility and genomics company Progress Educational Trust found that 53% of people support the use of gene-editing to treat severe genetic conditions.
Now, cue the Third International Summit on Human Genome Editing (6-8 March 2023) where researchers across the globe discuss the developments and implications of the latest gene-editing technology. The results of this summit, along with the citizens jury, will likely lead to parliamentary debate, and perhaps a change of law.
Since 2016, UK law allows for the editing of human embryos ‘outside the body’ for research purposes. Changing the law to allow for editing of human embryos in the body is a major step, and one which could have hugely beneficial consequences, or work to exacerbate existing socio-economic inequalities and disability stigmas. In the words of juror Brenda Poku: ‘A lot of work needs to be done to ensure this technology benefits all humans, not just some.’
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