Washington D.C., Apr 11, 2017 / 01:50 am
Recent American guidelines for human gene modification have raised important ethical questions, especially with regard to modifying the genes of unborn children and of reproductive cells.
The National Academy of Sciences in Feburary released a 261-page report on guidelines for editing the human genome to treat diseases and other applications. The report covers a wide array of topics, from the editing of adult cells for therapies such as cancer treatment, to the editing of embryos and germ cells (reproductive cells, i.e. ova and sperm), to the question of human enhancement.
John DiCamillo, an ethicist at the National Catholic Bioethics Center, spoke to CNA about the perils and the promises of gene editing, as well as the oversights contained in the National Academy of Sciences' report.
“Gene editing generally can be morally legitimate if it has a directly therapeutic purpose for a particular patient in question, and if we’re sure we’re going to limit whatever changes to this person,” DiCamillo explained. In this regard, the report’s guidelines for laboratory treatment of somatic – or non-reproductive – cells and human trials of somatic cell treatments were reasonable, he noted.
DiCamillo pointed to upcoming clinical gene therapy trials for cancer and proposed gene therapy treatments for disorders such as sickle cell disease. However, it’s important to limit these trials to non-embryonic persons, to ensure that the modifications – intended as well as unintended – are not carried in the patient’s reproductive cells.
While this would mean that patients treated for inheritable diseases “could still transmit it to their children,” any children who then developed the disease could themselves be treated through the same process.
The question of transmission to descendents opens up two more points discussed in the National Academy of Sciences report: the modification of ova and sperm, as well as edits to the genomes of embryos. Both of these changes would mean that people would maintain these edits in all of their cells for all of their lives – and could pass on these edited genes to new generations.
“There could be limited situations that could exist where the germ line could be legitimately edited. In other words, making changes to sperm, to eggs, or to early embryos as a way of potentially addressing diseases – inheritable diseases and so forth,” DiCamillo stated.