The biggest bioethics story of the year was the breakthrough in human genome editing using CRISPR-CAS9. As one bioethicist put it, long-term employment is here to stay for all bioethicists in light of these new, truly slippery slope technologies (See: http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/caplan20151210).
While it’s nice to know that bioethicists will have job security, I’m not sure the bioethics community is comfortable about the reason.
Fears of human genome editing were simmering by Spring 2015, after multiple studies published by various research groups around the world surrounding gene editing using the technology CRISPR-CAS9 (See: http://motherboard.vice.com/read/germline-engineering). In response, there was a call for a moratorium on gene editing of human germ lines because there were concerns that the science was ahead of the ethical implications (See: http://www.nature.com/news/don-t-edit-the-human-germ-line-1.17111 and http://www.sciencemag.org/content/348/6230/36.short).
But it was too late; a Chinese team of researchers published in April 2015 that they had performed such an experiment on human embryos. (See: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs13238-015-0153-5 ).
And then the debates raged regarding the ethical implications:
The year closed with an historic summit on human gene editing held December 1-3, 2015. This summit was comparable to the 1975 Asilomar conference, in which the scientific community felt that self-regulation about recombinant DNA technology was necessary (See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asilomar_Conference_on_Recombinant_DNA).
The International Summit on Human Gene Editing held December 2015 led to moral consensus on three key issues:
- Refrain from research and applications that use modified human embryos to establish a pregnancy.
- Caution in development of clinical applications until we know more about safety and efficacy, and the risks of inaccurate editing.
- Moratorium on ‘germline’ editing — the deletion of a gene prenatally in an effort to erase an inherited disease from an embryo and prevent it from being passed on to future generations.
Here is the position paper:
See also this summary of the position paper in Nature: http://www.nature.com/news/gene-editing-summit-supports-some-research-in-human-embryos-1.18947
Other summaries of the Summit are here:
A good perspective on the Summit authored by one of the organizers is here:
Although the Summit concluded with a moratorium on germ line editing, reproductive endocrinologists already use PGD to eliminate genetic diseases, which some argue should be the superior method to deal with genetic disease in which there are some normal embryos (See: https://www.ipscell.com/2015/04/crispr-versus-pgd/). I blogged about PGD in July 2015 (see: http://endocrineethicsblog.org/preimplantation-genetic-diagnosis-safe-sex-in-a-gattacan-world/).
Jumping ahead, what are the basic ethical implications of human gene editing? Well, that’s the problem – we just don’t know. Based on the questions raised by PGD, it’s not just about access issues, “super race” or designer babies, but we could be eliminating “defects” from the genome that are, in fact, attributes, or introducing “attributes” that wind up changing the human condition in unfathomable ways.
Some food for thought with your champagne tonight!