Following the revelation of the birth of two genetically modified babies in China last week, WHO announced the establishment of a “panel to study gene editing”. WHO “brings together experts and we work with Member States (…) to discuss criteria and guidelines that can address ethical and safety issues in society,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. He stated that gene editing “cannot be just done without clear guidelines”, and declined to speculate on whether some form of gene editing could offer public health benefits. “We have to be very, very careful. […] We should not go into gene editing without understanding the unintended consequences,” he said, suggesting that the members of the panel should start by asking whether gene editing should even be considered. This working group will be composed of academics, WHO experts and government medical specialists.
While the work of Chinese scientist He Jiankui behind these GMO babies has stirred controversy, an American team at Harvard intends to pursue the goal of producing genetically modified babies with a reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease in adulthood. While no embryos have been genetically modified by this team so far, their first step is to edit the DNA of sperm collected from fertility clinics. Moreover, George Daley, dean of Harvard Medical School, did not condemn the Chinese researcher at the Hong Kong summit. He acknowledged that the conditions were not right and regrets the “lack of transparency” that could cause problems for his own research, but he believes that editing the germ line should not be prohibited. In his opinion, it is a “transformative technology with the power for great medical use”. He drew up a list of genes that he thought it would be acceptable to edit. His ultimate goal is to ensure that “babies are born as healthy as possible”, using genetic testing, IVF, PGD and gene editing.