New Zealand researchers have joined a call for a global moratorium on human genome editing, after a rogue Chinese scientist shocked the world by producing two HIV-immune babies.
Last year, Shenzhen-based researcher He Jiankui announced he'd altered embryos for seven couples during fertility treatments, with one pregnancy resulting thus far.
He said his aim was not to cure or prevent an inherited disease, but to try to bestow a trait that few people naturally have — an ability to resist possible future infection with HIV, the Aids virus.
The experiments were met with horror and outrage by scientists around the world, who denounced it as unethical human experimentation.
They were especially appalled that He allegedly recruited patients using coercion, forged documents and swapped blood samples to achieve his goals.
Now scientists and ethicists from seven countries, including New Zealand, are demanding a moratorium and a new international rulebook for all clinical uses of human germline editing.
Currently, such gene-editing techniques are considered not sufficiently safe or effective to be used on human reproductive cell lines.
Writing in the major scientific journal Nature, the scientists proposed an "initial period of fixed duration during which no clinical uses of germline editing whatsoever should be allowed", after which nations could then choose whether to permit specific applications.
However, nations would proceed "openly and with due respect to the opinions of humankind on an issue that affects the human species" by agreeing not to approve applications without first meeting certain conditions.
"The governance framework we are calling for will place major speed bumps in front of the most adventurous plans to re-engineer the human species," but the "risks of the alternative — which include harming patients and eroding public trust — are far worse," the authors concluded.
They emphasised that the moratorium would not cover germline editing for research purposes only, or editing of somatic cells to treat diseases.
Otago University geneticist Professor Peter Dearden said the call was important and timely.
Because the new generation of CRISPR-cas9 gene-editing tools were relatively easy to use, and had proven effective in humans, it was possible they might be used to permanently edit the human genome to manage disease, or to improve human characteristics.
"This raises challenging ethical and societal issues that must be generally addressed," said Dearden, who is also director of Genomics Aotearoa and vice-president of the Genetics Society of Australasia.
"A moratorium while those discussions proceed is critical. I fully support this call."
Dearden added, however, that most scientists believe that such a moratorium already exists – and this wasn't enough to stop what happened.
"The case in China is a salutary one," he said.
"The scientist involved appears to have broken laws and regulations and behaved at the least unethically, at most illegally.
"That China has tightened its regulations, and sanctioned the scientist is good news; clearly they also the recognise the need to think carefully about gene editing in humans."
Dr Hillary Sheppard, a senior lecturer at the University of Auckland, said a new governance framework would provide some much needed clarity around the issue.
"One good thing that has emerged from this fiasco is the knowledge that the international scientific community will not tolerate unethical research and that they are actively looking for solutions to prevent it in the future."
The new call echoed one made earlier this year by Otago University scientists Professor Jing-Bao Nie, Dr Simon Walker and Jing-ru Li and Chinese colleagues.