Citing Ethical Issues, U.S. Will Not Fund Embryo Editing

Tweaking the genes of embryonic humans left in the hands of private companies

Photograph by Sam Kaplan

Thanks to new genetic engineering techniques, we can edit DNA with more precision than ever before. This technology has the potential to change whether a baby lives or dies, but it also carries with it a lot of unanswered scientific and ethical questions, such as the possibility of one day creating "designer babies".

In spite of all the scientific and ethical dilemmas that could result from editing the DNA that gets passed down from generation to generation--and despite calls for a moratorium on such research--Chinese scientists recently went ahead and did it anyway. They attempted to delete a gene for a blood disorder called beta thalassemia from the DNA of 86 nonviable embryos. The experiment was successful in 7 embryos.

In response, Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health (and leader of the U.S. effort to sequence the human genome), is making it known that the NIH will not fund such research. Editing human embryos "is a line that should not be crossed", says the statement, noting there are "serious and unquantifiable safety issues, ethical issues presented by altering the germline in a way that affects the next generation without their consent, and a current lack of compelling medical applications justifying the use of /[genetic engineering] in embryos."

The NIH's stance is not particularly surprising, since federal government has been pretty conservative on embryonic research in general. And it aligns with the views of the journals Science and Nature, which refused to publish the Chinese study because of the ethical problems. In contrast, over at the Guardian, bioethicist Christopher Gyngell suggests that it could be unethical to prevent such research.

There is no possible way that the gene which causes Tay-Sachs disease--a disease in which children develop normally for six months and then become progressively deaf, blind, unable to swallow, and paralytic, before dying at four - will benefit future generations. We lose nothing by editing this gene out of the human lineage. There is no reason why we couldn’t restrict the use of gene editing technologies to removing valueless genes like this.

What we ought to do is use this resource responsibly. We should harness its power to achieve good ends and restrict its use for purposes that are bad. This will not be achieved by simply withdrawing from research.

Of course, gene editing techniques are nowhere near ready to eradicate human diseases. The modifications are difficult to target, and the editing process can cause damage to the entire genome. The NIH's stance means those safety problems won't be solved on the U.S.'s dime.