Experts back genome editing in human embryo research

BMJ 2015; 351 doi: (Published 11 September 2015) Cite this as: BMJ 2015;351:h4874
  1. Zosia Kmietowicz
  1. 1The BMJ

Researchers should be allowed to edit the human genome in embryos and germ cells but only to better understand developmental biology, not for clinical or reproductive purposes, an international group of scientists, bioethicists, and policy experts has said.1

The Hinxton Group describes itself as “an informal collection of individuals interested in ethical and well-regulated science” and meets to discuss ethical and policy issues of international importance in stem cell and embryo research.

The group’s latest meeting focused on genome editing in the early stages of human development, when changes could be integrated into the germline and have the possibility of being handed down to future generations. These techniques could be used to correct genetic defects or introduce other therapeutic changes, said the group’s statement, and some unregulated clinics have allegedly developed stem cell “treatments.”

The group agreed that “while this technology has tremendous value to basic research and enormous potential for somatic clinical uses, it is not sufficiently developed to consider human genome editing for clinical reproductive purposes at this time.”

Before the technique could be considered for human reproduction, work was needed to understand the extent and effects of “off-target events” (unintended genetic alterations that result from the initial editing) and “mosaicism” (variation across cells with respect to the intended genetic change).

In basic research, genome editing has “tremendous value” to better understand and improve the technique of genome editing, to answer questions about human and non-human animal biology, and to develop safe human reproduction applications, said the group. While genome editing for human therapy should be regulated, such regulation should not hamper basic research, it said.

Debra Mathews, assistant director of science programmes at Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics and a member of the Hinxton Group’s steering committee, said, “While there is controversy and deep moral disagreement about human germline genetic modification, what is needed is not to stop all discussion, debate, and research but rather to engage with the public, policy makers, and the broader scientific community and to weigh together the potential benefits and harms of human genome editing for research and human health.”

Dana Carroll, professor of biochemistry at the University of Utah, described the document as “very thorough and thoughtful.” He added, “I would say the Hinxton Group is a half step ahead of my thinking on the issue of potential human germline editing. I would like to hear a fuller discussion of the conditions and circumstances in which human germline therapy would be clinically the best approach, including consideration of the rights of the edited individual, before encouraging research with intentionally generated human embryos. At the same time, I agree completely that, ultimately, only through such research will the parameters for germline applications be determined.”

Jacob Corn, managing director and scientific director of the Innovative Genomics Initiative, commented, “A great deal of investigation is still necessary for any therapeutic use of genome editing, and with support from governance the field can make headway towards cures for devastating genetic diseases.”


Cite this as: BMJ 2015;351:h4874


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