Friday, February 12, 2016

A Nobel Laureate's 'Unsettling Note' From California's Human Gene Editing Conference

The Center for Genetics and Society, which has been monitoring human gene editing for the past few years, weighed in this week on the possibility that the state of California will beef up its role in financing research involving the sometimes controversial process.

The Berkeley-based center has taken cautionary approach to the field. The article this week on the center’s blog by Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the group, continued in that vein.

Darnovsky attended the session last week during which the $3 billion California stem cell agency decided to embark on a thorough examination of the topic with the possibility of moving forward on gene editing of human embryos, a field that the federal government does not fund.

Darnovsky provided a summary of the session and cited “an unsettling (if unsurprising) note” from David Baltimore. He is a Nobel Laureate, former president of Caltech and a former member of the governing board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine(CIRM), as the stem cell agency is formally known. Baltimore also has been active in sounding go-slow recommendations on human embryo modification.

The concluding paragraph in Darnovsky piece said, however,
“Finally, an unsettling (if unsurprising) note about David Baltimore, who has played an influential role in the current controversy about germline gene editing and who chaired the organizing committee for last December’s International Summit. In previous comments about human gene editing, Baltimore has talked about responsible science; at the CIRM meeting, he came out explicitly in support of human germline modification. In his invited presentation, he said – as if this were a matter of scientific fact – that the desire for biologically related children is genetically hard-wired. He acknowledged that people at risk of transmitting genetic disease can already almost always have unaffected children in a variety of ways, and that therefore germline gene editing would at best benefit very few. But, he continued, ‘there are circumstances where it is the only opportunity for doing what a patient wants....To me, that’s sufficient reason to bring it to clinical use.’"
Darnovsky’s article also discussed testimony by Charis Thompson of UC Berkeley, who raised a number of policy issues.

Darnovsky wrote that they included “reminders that CIRM is mandated to serve not only patients with unmet medical needs, but also the taxpayers and voters of California; that disability justice experts as well as patient advocates should be consulted about gene editing directions; that CIRM should ensure that the work it funds does not exacerbate health disparities; and that if evidence of health disparities or eugenic trends emerges,’real consequences’ must ensue. She concluded by saying that ‘It is not `anti-science’ to note that historically, slopes are indeed slippery,” and that “California deserves – and can have – both the best science and the best ethics.’”

Darnovsky additionally reported on comments by Jeff Sheehy, a member of the CIRM board. She wrote that Sheehy was concerned that the agency might “have little recourse if grantees used other funds to initiate a pregnancy. ‘Where does our reach start and end?,’ he asked. ‘Does it start at the purpose of the proposed research? Do we just say you can’t implant?’ Sheehy suggested that if CIRM approves any grants for research that would produce modified human embryos, it include as a contractual requirement that those embryos cannot be used to initiate a pregnancy, whatever the funding source for that final (and trivial) step.”

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