The opportunities and limits of genome editing
Four important german scientific organisations have released a joint statement to genome editing techniques, highlighting the high potential for science, considering ethic and legal concerns marginal.
(Image: The Broad Institute)
Modern molecular techniques often re- ferred to as “genome editing” or “genome surgery” are currently revolutionising molecular biology research. Technolo- gies such as CRISPR-Cas9 allow for sur- prisingly simple, controlled gene modi- fications that are more efficient than the previously available methods. This opens up new scope for molecular biological basic research, particularly into organ- isms that were not previously accessi- ble for molecular genetic purposes, and for elucidating poorly understood gene functions. This methological innovation also allows for far-reaching applications, from new options for plant breeding and biotechnology to somatic gene therapy for human genetic diseases. Focused ba- sic research is still required, and Germa- ny should be contributing on all levels to these important developments, as well as helping to ensure a safe and respon- sible application of genome editing that respects the needs of humanity and the environment.
In April 2015, Chinese researchers studied the potential CRISPR-Cas9 has to change the human genome in non-vi- able human embryos. The results of the study show that the methods behind such an application are far from adequately developed. Such experiments also raise far-reaching social, ethical and legal questions regarding the treatment of he- reditary diseases and the integrity of the human germline; they also come close to overstepping the boundaries of scientific freedom. In Germany, germline therapy and the use of modified germ cells for fer- tilisation is prohibited under Section 5 of the German Embryo Protection Act.
The National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina, acatech – the National Acad- emy of Science and Engineering, the Un- ion of German Academies of Sciences and Humanities, and the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungs- gemeinschaft – DFG) stress the great sci- entific potential of genome editing. They point out that it is ethically and legally acceptable in many areas. The new tech- niques should not be automatically equat- ed with sporadic cases of improper use or with applications whose ethical and legal ramifications have not yet been assessed. The DFG and the academies endorse the call for an international moratorium on all forms of human germline engineering that could have an impact on the genome of the offspring. The moratorium should give scientists, politicians and society the opportunity to discuss unresolved ques- tions in a transparent and critical way, to evaluate the benefits and potential risks of the techniques, and to develop recommen- dations for future regulations. However, the moratorium should not constitute a general restriction on methodological de- velopments and thus limit any promising new genome editing approaches for use in research and application.