Back in May, the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine announced that plans to address the emerging bioethics debate about the use of advanced gene editing technologies to modify the DNA in human embryos. This technology , commonly called CRISPR/Cas9, has the potential to bring us to a new era in human evolution, one in which we can modify the DNA of our offspring in perpetuity. Needless to say, some find this troubling while others find it promising, if its use can be controlled properly.
NAS and NAM plan to convene a major conference sometime in the fall. Just this week, the presidents of the two academies co-authored a brief paper, “Responsible Use of Human Gene-Editing Technologies,” which just appeared as an editorial in Human Gene Therapy 26.7. Here is a key paragraph:
As a result, the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine are launching a major initiative to guide decision making about research involving human gene editing. We have appointed a multidisciplinary advisory group that will help steer our initiative. This fall, we will host an international summit to assemble researchers and other experts to explore the scientific, ethical, and policy issues associated with human gene-editing research. In addition, the academies will convene a multidisciplinary, international committee to undertake an in-depth study to examine the scientific underpinnings; clinical implications; and ethical, legal, and social aspects of the use of current and developing human genome editing technologies in biomedical research and medicine. The study will take a global perspective, and committee members will represent a wide range of expertise from diverse disciplines such as bioethics.
Without expecting too much of the event or hyping it unduly, we can say that this could historic, defining not just our moment in time but human history for generations to come. Rarely do we human beings find ourselves facing such a moment when so much is at stake.
What will be interesting is how much religious voices are represented, or whether religious openness to the core concept of human germline modification becomes part of the record of this event. God forbid that critics of the notion of germline modification will harp about “playing God,” pretending to care about religion but really just using it to intensify their opposition. Instead, we need to hear from advocates of a sane, positive, and cautiously hopeful view who will try to bring together the best in religious visions of the human future with the latest science.