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Prominent scientists worried that new gene-editing tools are getting ahead of humanity's grasp of the implications are calling for a moratorium.
University of Utah geneticist Dana Carroll, a leader in genomic engineering, is one of 18 scientists, ethicists and legal experts who signed a cautionary paper published Thursday in the journal Science Express.
The group met in Napa, Calif., in January to discuss and formulate their position, which calls for scientists to slow down, better understand the safety and consequences of engineering changes in human DNA and allow time for public discussion of the ethics.
A new tool that is revolutionizing genetics and molecular biology, CRISPR-Cas9, gives researchers the ability to easily and cheaply "snip" DNA in a cell, using an enzyme called a nuclease, and either remove or rewrite genetic information.
While it holds promise for eradicating genetic diseases, the technology also has big implications for the human genome: A person whose DNA is edited would pass the altered genes on to his or her future children.
There's also a fear the technology could be used in unethical ways, such as "engineering" a baby to look a certain way, or to be athletic or intelligent.
"One of the concerns is that some people may want to use the technology to make trivial or cosmetic changes, rather than using it to prevent devastating diseases," said Carroll, distinguished professor of biochemistry at the University of Utah School of Medicine.
The paper Carroll co-signed is expected to amplify discussion in the scientific community, which last week heard from another group of researchers who recommend that the new technology never be used on human embryos.
Changing the genome could have unpredictable effects on future humans, and that's unacceptable, the group says.
Instead, that group, led by Edward Lanphier, chief executive of the biotechnology company Sangamo Biosciences, suggests research focus on somatic, or non-reproductive cells.
CRISPR-Cas9, was developed in the lab of Jennifer Doudna, the University of California-Berkeley scientist who organized the Napa meeting.
Hundreds of papers in the past two years have proven the usefulness of the new tool in research involving mammals.
"The applications to humans are potentially just around the corner," Carroll said.
CRISPR-Cas9 allows more subtle, precise changes in DNA than was possible with technologies used in genetically modified organisms (GMOs), he added. Such genetic engineering typically involves introducing new genes into an organism.
But caution is in order because scientists cannot be sure there won't be other consequences to the gene editing, he said. "We could be doing the right thing at the target and the wrong thing somewhere else," Carroll said. "This is not trivial genetic manipulation.
"That means that we have to be very careful that, first of all, the change is what we intend and nothing else, and that the people who are affected by the change in the short term and the public at large have some comfort with this approach."
The paper Carroll co-signed says, "Given the rapid developments in the field, it would be wise to begin a discussion that bridges the research community, relevant industries, medical centers, regulatory bodies and the public in order to explore together the responsible uses of this technology."
While the statement doesn't suggest who should lead the conversation, Carroll said the National Academy of Sciences would be a logical choice.
Most countries either outlaw or regulate genetic manipulation of human genes, but he acknowledged that the paper might only affect what happens in the United States.
The paper suggests that scientists avoid even attempting, in lax jurisdictions or with regulatory approval, modifying the germ line reproductive cells in human beings, "while societal, environmental and ethical implications of such activity are discussed among scientific and governmental organizations."
By having a public discussion of the ethics, Carroll said, perhaps "enough people around the world will feel the ethical challenges of doing this sort of thing that even the outlaws are given pause."