The World Health Organisation has strongly warned against clinically modifying the gene of eggs, sperms or the embryo to produce genetically edited babies.
The UN health agency in a statement released on its website on Friday said “it would be irresponsible for any anyone at this time to proceed with clinical application of human germline genome editing” without an agreed international standard regulating the practice.
This recommendation was given by the WHO expert advisory committee on governance and oversight of human genome editing.
The committee submitted an interim recommendation to the WHO Director-General, Tedros Ghebreyesus.
The committee was constituted by the UN agency as a backdrop of the latest events of scientists clinically conducting human germline genome editing without an agreed international regulation.
The international community is yet to establish standards for gene-editing researches. They are yet to develop global ethical principles which will prevent unethical researchers from moving to whichever country that has the loosest regulations.
The calls for stiffer regulation arose after a Chinese researcher, He Jiankui, in 2018 said he had used a gene-editing technology known as CRISPR to make the world’s first genetically-edited babies.
He used the CRISPR technique to modify the CCR5 gene on the embryos of seven couples, in order to make them resistant to the HIV virus. One of the couples subsequently gave birth to twins – Lulu and Nana.
Although not illegal at the time, his actions broke the accepted ethical standards on conducting unproven research on humans, and the news of experiments came as a shock to scientists and researchers in the field.
What is gene editing?
Human germline genome editing or engineering is the process by which the genome of an individual is edited in such a way that the change is heritable. This is achieved through genetic alteration at the reproductive stage from the egg or sperm or embryo.
This is a deliberate changing of the genes that is being passed to the children and future generation.
Like any new technology, gene editing is a powerful technology which has the potential to lead to new therapies for some untreatable diseases. However, there is a potential for it to be misused.
Although genetic editing in humans is a controversial topic, not all forms of human genetic manipulation are in question.
CRISPR could be used to alter cells in the bodies’ immune system in order to target and destroy cancer cells or to replace the genes that cause sickle cell anaemia with non-sickle cell genes.
Problems are, however, envisaged to arise when gene editing is performed on germ cells. Implanting a CRISPR-modified embryo into a human is illegal in some places and even where it is not illegal; it is in contravention of research guidelines, as well as moral and ethical standards.
WHO said it is supporting the interim recommendation and advises regulatory or ethics authorities to refrain from issuing approvals concerning requests for clinical applications for work that involve human germline genome editing.
Mr Ghebreyesus said “human germline genome editing poses unique and unprecedented ethical and technical challenges.
“I have accepted the interim recommendations of WHO’s Expert Advisory Committee that regulatory authorities in all countries should not allow any further work in this area until its implications have been properly considered.
“WHO’s Expert Advisory Committee continues its consideration of this matter, and will, at its forthcoming meeting in Geneva on 26-28 August 2019, evaluate, inter alia, effective governance instruments to deter and prevent irresponsible and unacceptable uses of genome edited embryos to initiate human pregnancies,” he said.