World Health Organization to Study Gene Editing Amid Controversial Developments

World Health Organization to Study Gene Editing Amid Controversial Developments
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Following the news that a set of gene-edited twin girls had been born in China in November, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that it was creating a working group to study gene-editing and the many ethical, social, and safety issues surrounding the process.

The panel’s job will be to develop “agreed norms and standards for the governance of human gene-editing,” the WHO said.

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director-general, warned of the potential for “unintended consequences” of gene-editing during a conference on December 4th.

“This is uncharted water and it has to be taken seriously.

WHO is putting together experts. We will work with member states to do everything we can to make sure of all issues – be it ethical, social, safety – before any manipulation is done.”

Chinese scientist He Jiankui announced November 26 that he had created the world’s first gene-edited babies, twin girls, by altering their DNA to resist HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The announcement immediately sparked outrage and concern among the scientific community.

Two days later, the researcher said that a second pregnancy had possibly occurred.

Following the announcement, the Chinese government ordered an “immediate investigation,” and halted the work of the researchers involved in the experiment.

Leading geneticists around the world also called for an independent inquiry into Jiankui.

It is legal to genetically modify embryos in the United States, but only for research in the lab.

While acknowledging that gene-editing holds the potential to rid humanity of horrific maladies, the WHO warned that the technique – which is conducted using CRISPR-Cas9 – also comes with many issues that need to be addressed before the technology can be deployed to potentially benefit people.

“The use of these technologies must be regulated through ethics oversight and human rights standards.

WHO is committed to working with member states to and the wider global health and research community to establish the mechanisms and dialogue needed to effectively govern these technologies.”

Jiankui’s claims have yet to be verified by a scientific journal or any other independent source. The scientist, an associate professor at Shenzhen’s Southern University of Science and Technology in China, made his claims to an organizer of an international gene-editing conference in Hong Kong. [2]

Gene-editing is controversial for a number of reasons. There is concern that the technique could ignite unintended consequences that could be passed down from generation to generation. In fact, last year, researchers at Columbia University said that when they used CRISPR-Cas9 to correct blindness in mice, they inadvertently caused mutations to more than 1,000 other genes.

Two studies published earlier this year found that CRISPR-Cas9 may be tied to an increased risk of cancer as well.

One of the scariest possibilities associated with gene-editing is that it could be used to create “designer babies” – children genetically modified to be superior to children created traditionally. Imagine a world in which wealthy parents have the option of making babies that are better-looking, more intelligent, and more resistant to diseases than other children and you may understand why the idea could be so terrifying.

It seems that this science will continue to move forward; let’s just hope that minimal issues unfold in the future.


[1] CNN

[2] USA Today