Expert: Region needs gene-editing ethics panel

KUALA LUMPUR: After a Chinese scientist raised alarm bells saying he edited genes in human embryos, many have called for controls on the controversial practice.

Universiti Malaya (UM) Faculty of Law senior lecturer Sharon Kaur said the setting up of a regional –Asian, South-East Asia – or an international ethics review panel should be considered to address the issue.

“This would make it easier for countries as there aren’t enough funds or time to build capacity in every ethics committee worldwide,” she said during the Getting the Ethics of Genome Editing Right: Engaging Multiple Perspectives conference on Tuesday.

On Nov 28, He Jiankui, an associate professor at Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, claimed he had altered the DNA of a pair of twins using CRISPR techno­logy (a simple but powerful gene­-editing tool) to make them HIV-resistant – creating history’s first genetically edited babies.

Chinese authorities issued an immediate suspension order for the research, while many scientists and ethicists condemned the experiment as unethical and unsafe.

This led to a global moratorium on gene-editing and debate over the ethics of pushing forward the biological frontier so drastically, The Stanford Daily reported on Monday.

He, a Stanford post-doctoral fellow, and later, his research professor Dr Stephen Quake, were heavily criticised.

Quake shared their email correspondences, which were carried in The New York Times on Sunday.

Several speakers in the conference raised the concern of human germline gene modification as no one would know of its ramifications in future generations.

Sharon said some scientists argued a moratorium was not going to stop rogue scientists, but it helped in setting a good culture.

She said in a moratorium, the whole scientific community should not do it, but in He’s case, he was not discouraged in his discussions.

“I would posit He was not doing this by himself. He worked in a lab.

“And if you have a moratorium, you can’t just say ‘I have all this approval anyway, I am going to get informed consent.”

Sharon said the World Health Organisation had an advisory committee on editing human DNA and it was asking the United Nations to set up a global registry.

She also said that a human rights instrument similar to the Conven­tion on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, where people could report to the committee and action be taken, can also be set up.

UM’s Faculty of Medicine’s distinguished professor and senior consultant histopathologist Prof Datuk Dr Looi Lai-Meng said Malaysia used CRISPR gene-editing on cancer cells to understand the workings of cancer but did not edit genomes.

“It is cutting and pasting but not putting the cells back into the patient’s body,” she said.

She said editing the human genome was wrong and might not even achieve a cure, so guidelines could be developed as the risks are unknown and the benefits are not as great as they seem.

The faculty’s dean, Prof Datuk Dr Adeeba Kamarulzaman, said Malay­sian researchers adhered to international guidelines.


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