By Ben Hirschler
LONDON (Reuters) – Scientists from the United States, China & Britain will come together to discuss the future of human gene editing, which holds tremendous promise for treating diseases yet moreover has the potential to create "designer babies".
The Chinese Academy of Sciences & Britain's Royal Society said on Monday they would join the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in co-hosting an international summit on the topic in Washington on Dec. 1-3.
The technology, called CRISPR-Cas9, allows scientists to edit genes by using genetic "scissors" that operate a bit like a biological word-processing program that can find & replace defects.
CRISPR has excited academic researchers & drug companies alike, since it may allow them to rewrite the DNA of diseased cells. But it has moreover raised serious ethical concerns due to the potential to alter the genetic code of embryos.
â€œHuman gene editing offers tremendous promise for improving human health & well-being yet it moreover raises significant ethical & societal issues,â€ said Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society.
â€œIt is vital that we have a well-informed international debate approximately the potential benefits & risks, & this summit can hopefully set the tone for that discussion.â€
In addition to the Washington summit, an expert committee will issue a report next year with recommendations to guide the responsible use of human gene editing.
China plays an significant role in the debate since a group at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou published results in April of an experiment to alter the DNA of human embryos using CRISPR.
Altering the DNA in this way could produce unknown effects on future generations, since the changes would be passed on to offspring. Such so-called germline engineering, affecting eggs, sperm or embryos, is very different from altering non-reproductive cells in order to fight a disease.
The Guangzhou case provoked widespread concern, yet Chinese Academy of Sciences President Chunli Bai said on Monday his country wanted "to work together with international communities for the proper regulation & application of such technology.â€
China is a growing force in life sciences, particularly in gene editing, with a burgeoning patent portfolio, according to a Reuters analysis in June.
Pharmaceutical companies including Novartis & AstraZeneca are meanwhile investing in the new technology & a number of standalone biotech firms have been set up, including Intellia Therapeutics, which raised $70 million in a fundraising this month.
(Editing by Louise Heavens)