“Britain’s first genetically modified human embryos could be created within months….”Siddique's piece dealt with the approval today by the key regulatory body in the United Kingdom for genetic changes in human embryos, a topic of international controversy and concern but with a special connection to California.
The news came as the state’s $3 billion stem cell agency plans a full-day examination Thursday of the issue and its implication for research in the Golden State. Of particular concern is a gene editing tool called Crispr that makes it much easier to alter genes and raises the possibility of permanent changes in the genetic make-up of the human race.
The journal Nature said the UK action was “the world's first endorsement of such research by a national regulatory authority.”
Kevin McCormack, spokesman for the California stem cell agency, told the California Stem Cell Report that the move demonstrated the timeliness of this week’s conference, which could lead to changes in California stem cell research standards.
Eminent scientists internationally have called for a go-slow approach until the issues are examined more closely. Leading that effort is David Baltimore, a Nobel Prize winner and a former member of the state stem cell agency board. He is scheduled to speak at Thursday’s session.
Baltimore was interviewed today by Nicholas Wade for a piece in the New York Times. Wade wrote that Baltimore “said the proposed experiment appeared to be consistent with the principles laid out by the (scientific) academies.
“Many such experiments are impossible for government-funded researchers in the United States because of the congressional ban (on destruction of embryos in federal research), but ‘luckily, private and state funding sources are available to carry forward such work,’ Dr. Baltimore said.”The research in the UK is expected to be conducted with embryos donated via an IVF process. The UK rules restrict the length of the experiment to 14 days. None of the embryos will be transplanted to a womb, according to the rules.
In California, the Center for Genetics and Society in Berkeley issued a news release raising questions about the UK action. Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the center, asked,
“Is today's decision part of a strategy to overturn the widespread agreement that puts genetically modified humans off limits?”Her statement said,
“The designer-baby question is a social and political question more than a technical one, and we are at a tipping-point moment on it. Now is the time to ensure that gene editing is not used to create GM babies, and that we stay off the high-tech road to new forms of inequality, and to a consumer-driven form of eugenics.”Stem cell researcher Paul Knoepfler of UC Davis, author of “GMO Sapiens: The Life-Changing Science of Designer Babies,” wrote on his blog,
“It’s frustrating for us biologists that we still know more about the development of other animals (e.g. mice or fruit flies) than that of our own species. Crispr could change that and I believe it could do it in a big way. So with the appropriate oversight, bioethics training, and transparency, I could support this Crispr work in the UK. I need time to read up on what exactly they have planned….”Thursday’s conference in Los Angeles will be audiocast live via an 800 number. It is also a public meeting at which anyone can make comments. Directions for the audiocast and the specific location are on the meeting agenda. The California Stem Cell Report will be providing live coverage of the day’s discussions.