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Why we need Slow Science

In a newly published article Nature, a group of prominent scientists and ethicists requires a moratorium on clinical research using CRISPR / Cas9 gene processing.

This moratorium deals with the use of CRISPR / Cas9 gene processing from the germline – changing hereditary DNA into sperm, eggs or embryos to create genetically modified children.

In other words, this would be a temporary ban on experiments that could lead to more "CRISPR babies & # 39; s".

Read more:
Open Pandora's Box: Gene Editing and its Consequences

The document was signed and written by a number of prominent ethicists and scientists, including CRISPR pioneers Emmanuelle Charpentier (one of the co-discoverers of the CRISPR / Cas9) and Feng Zhang (one of the first to use CRISPR in human cells), such as as well as geneticist Eric Lander and bio-ethicists Françoise Baylis and Jing-Bao Nie.

However, CRISPR researcher Jennifer Doudna (the other co-discoverer of the CRISPR / Cas9 system) refused to sign this call for a moratorium. She said The Washington Post: "My feeling is, this is in fact just changing again what has been going on for several years."

This is a controversial point, since the word moratorium has only been used sparingly by the scientists involved in this study. Many of the signatories, however, have voiced their views on how to edit germlines in the past.

By asking for a worldwide moratorium, the signatories do not mean a permanent ban, but rather a temporary ban – to enable the development of an international governance framework around the processing of the human germline genome. Specifically, they suggest a moratorium of five years, a period long enough to enable critical discussions and stakeholder engagement.

It is also important that they do not decide unanimously between nations. Countries would be able to come up with their own regulatory framework, taking into account the ethical, scientific, technical and medical considerations of processing CRISPR / Cas9 germ lines.

Slowing science down for the common good

CRISPR / Cas9 gene processing has progressed at an unprecedented rate since CRISPR was first used in human cells in vitro in 2013 until claims about the birth of the first germ-treated babies in 2018. This is very worrying, especially when the medical need and social risks are still being discussed and the safety and efficacy of the treatments are still largely unknown.

As far as we are concerned, the authors of the recent one Nature Editorial questions for is Slow CRISPR Science. Slow Science – an answer to the increasing speed and interest of companies in the scientific endeavor and the & # 39; publish or falsify paradigm & # 39; – was based on concepts from the Slow Food movement.

Slow Food was a direct response to Fast Food, a system in which the environment, people and economies were often compromised at the expense of business interests that yielded apparently quick and simple meals. Ideally, the Slow movement does not ask for "less productivity or efficiency", but for more thoughtful and engaging work in the food industry and in science.

In terms of gene editing, slow moving would mean perfecting patients' non-hereditary gene editing techniques before attempting ethically loaded and technically more difficult genetic gene editing clinical trials (which are the result of gain or the necessity to perform the first rather than social need or general well-being).

J. Benjamin Hurlbut, associate professor of biology and society at Arizona State University, wrote in a Nature comment at the beginning of January 2019:

"To move forward in a positive direction, science must not assume to determine the destination for a technology, but must follow the direction that we, the people, offer."

Slow CRISPR science would allow proper consultation with appropriate stakeholders and the public before the decision is made to proceed.

A divided scientific community

Scientific communities disagree on the question of a moratorium. In fact, a comment has been published in Science insisted on "a cautious path forward" in 2015 and discussed what steps should be taken to ensure ethical and safe use of this technology.

However, the word moratorium was never used in this document. Furthermore, many of the authors of the 2015 publication said goodbye to a moratorium, with many of the organizing committee of the Human Genome Editing Summit of 2018 (many of whom were also authors in 2015) Science article) suggests a "translational path" based on "broad scientific consensus" on genome processing of human germ cells.

This is in direct contrast to the language in the final statement of the Human Gene Editing Summit 2015, where editing of the germline genome was considered "irresponsible" until relevant safety and efficacy issues were addressed and a "broad social consensus" was addressed. achieved.

Many effectively have the question & # 39; How can we do this & # 39; skipped instead of: & # 39; Should we do this? & # 39;

Ultimately, a period of pause and reflection would enable citizens in each country to have the important conversation about whether their society approves of the germline genome processing. Each society must decide for itself whether the rewards outweigh the risks, are informed by science but not dictated by science.

Time to do it right

For Canada, the moratorium will have little effect on the CRISPR research activity, since the processing of germ line genes of embryos is already prohibited under the 2004 Assisted Human Reproduction Act.

It is clear that the stakes are high and that failures in the early application of CRISPR to human health can result in a total ban on this technology, offering such an incredible promise to alleviate human suffering by healing diseases. to cure.

Therefore, it is an obvious step to temporarily take a break when editing germline lines to allow for a deeper consideration of the risks and benefits. In essence, this is what these scientists and ethicists demand in their proposed moratorium.

They take time to pause and think. Time to conduct appropriate consultations with relevant stakeholders and (very importantly) the public in an effort to reach a broad social consensus. And finally, time to develop the most robust and precise gene processing tools, so when we use CRISPR / Cas9 to rewrite humanity's source code, we are doing well.

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