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Should Heritable Gene Editing Be Used on Humans?

Gene editing for human sperm, eggs and embryos could eliminate inherited disease—but also lead to...

The development of technology that allows human genes to be edited has stirred tremendous excitement about the potential for treating debilitating and life-threatening diseases. The technology could lead to drugs that would treat cancers and other diseases that currently are incurable.

But another facet of this breakthrough has many scientists and others worried: the possibility that the genetic makeup of sperm and eggs could be edited so that diseases that can be inherited won’t be passed on to children yet to be born. One concern is that gene editing that affects future generations, not just an individual, is too risky given our still incomplete understanding of the human genome and how changes might affect it. Another is that the ability to edit heritable traits could result in so-called designer babies, with parents choosing traits such as intelligence or physical characteristics.

Others say we can meet those challenges, and the potential benefits are too great to pass up.

George Church, professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, favors a careful exploration of the potential of heritable gene editing. Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, says the risks to individuals and to society are too great.

YES: Evidence Suggests the Technique Is Safe And Effective

By George Church

Editing genetic material in human sperm or egg cells to restore healthy DNA can address significant unmet medical and emotional needs.

There are many genetic diseases that could be eliminated in families—Tay-Sachs disease, for example, which causes devastating progressive mental and physical deterioration, with death by the age of 4.

For this and other severe genetic diseases without cures, those who carry the harmful genetic variant currently have few choices when they want a child who won’t be afflicted: adoption, egg or sperm donation or abortion of embryos that are stricken with the disease. For many couples, none of those options work.

Adoption and donation don’t satisfy the strong desire of many parents to have children of their own lineage, and abortion is unacceptable to many. Genetic editing would allow couples to have healthy children who share their DNA, without harming any embryos—assuming editing is done in sperm or egg cells and not embryos, so that no embryos would be destroyed in pregnancy or using in vitro fertilization. Gene editing of sperm-producing cells could also reduce infertility and spontaneous abortions, which are important medical issues for many families.

There’s every reason to expect the practice of editing heritable genes would be safe and effective. Clinical trials of gene editing that is not passed on to future generations are already showing successful cures for HIV-AIDS and leukemia. Many other applications of editing are similarly fruitful.

The notion that we need complete knowledge of the whole human genome to conduct clinical trials of heritable gene editing seems at odds with medical reality. We had a very weak...