(CN) – A World Health Organization panel is urging researchers in the rapidly growing field of editing human genes to stay away from using the biotechnology to make better babies.
On Tuesday, a WHO expert advisory committee said it would be “irresponsible at this time” for researchers to continue work that involves tinkering with the DNA of human eggs, sperm or embryos, a technology known as human germline genome editing.
The committee, though, stopped short of saying the technology should be banned. Scientists and ethics experts are split over whether gene editing during human reproduction should be outlawed.
The WHO panel was convened after the first gene-edited babies were born in China last year, raising alarm bells and sparking worldwide condemnation of the researcher behind the experiment.
Scientists worry about the dangers of gene-edited babies passing their altered DNA onto their offspring and future generations. One fear is that tinkering with DNA at the reproduction stage may damage other genes.
The technology obviously raises many ethical questions too, including temptations to create smarter and more attractive humans.
The WHO committee is made up of health and legal experts from around the world and its task is to draw up a global framework to establish standards for gene editing of all kinds, not just involving human reproduction.
Gene editing, which consists of replacing genes with others, is a groundbreaking field with the potential of helping humans combat a number of diseases and health problems.
“Gene editing holds incredible promise for health, but it also poses some risks, both ethically and medically,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general.
Dr. Margaret Hamburg, the committee’s co-chair and a former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said in a news briefing that recommending a ban was not what the panel needed to do.
“I don’t think a vague moratorium is the answer to what needs to be done,” she told reporters on a teleconference. “We really need to take this more comprehensive approach, that really is the charge of this committee.”
She said the committee’s decision to call germline editing irresponsible reflected “the state of the science” and echoed calls by others, including those say who the technology should be temporarily banned.
Most recently, an international group of scientists and ethics experts called for a temporary ban on gene-edited babies in the journal Nature last week.
The panel also told the WHO to begin developing a registry on human genome editing research. It said this was needed “to create an open and transparent database of ongoing work.”
Hamburg said scientists should be pushed into ensuring their work is placed on the WHO registry.
“We think it is very important to establish this registry to get a better sense about the research going on around the world,” she said.
She called creating a governance and oversight framework “an urgent task, a big job and an important one.” The aim is to develop standards that are “appropriate for use at the international, regional, national and local levels,” she said.
WHO might consider issuing a binding international agreement governing gene editing.
The panel is expected to work for 18 months on developing recommendations for WHO. This was its first meeting, which took place in Geneva, Switzerland, the headquarters of WHO, the health agency of the United Nations.
Hamburg said the announcement of the birth of gene-edited babies in China “was of great concern to all the members of the committee.”
Chinese biophysicist He Jiankui changed the DNA of twin girls with the aim of making them resistant to HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
She said the committee was not investigating that case.
“The work of this committee is not to investigate cases that have occurred but really try to create a global governance framework,” Hamburg said.
Earlier this year, Chinese investigators said He had dodged supervision of his work and broke research norms because he wanted to be famous, according to the Associated Press.
This month, China also issued draft regulations to restrict the use of gene editing in people.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union .)