Citing safety fears for babies, genetics researchers on Thursday called for a halt to experiments that would alter the DNA of human sperm, eggs, and embryos.
The moratorium plea, published in the journal Nature, suggests that genetic modification of babies is right around the corner, and may lead to a dystopian future not unlike the 1997 movie Gattaca.
"Human beings are not lab rats, just another species to improve," Edward Lanphier, chairman of the Alliance for Regenerative Medicine, told BuzzFeed News.
The alliance represents more than 170 research firms, institutes, and patient groups advocating for federal support of Alzheimer's, spinal cord, and brain injury treatments.
"A fundamental barrier would be crossed that everyone should have a chance to weigh here," said Lanphier, who led the call for the halt.
Lanphier and his co-authors, including his colleague Fyodor Urnov of the biotech firm Sangamo BioSciences, are not against all so-called "gene editing" experiments. They applaud using the technology to treat diseases, such as HIV, sickle cell anemia, and cancer. Those efforts rely on genetic editing of immune cells to fight diseases, alterations that would not be passed along to the offspring of patients. (Sangamo, for example, just launched a clinical trial that will tweak the genes of people with HIV.)
What Lanphier and his colleagues want to stop are genetic tweaks to human embryos that would forever alter the DNA of babies in every cell of their bodies, and that might be used for cosmetic, not medical, reasons, with uncertain effects passed along to future generations.
The researchers cite a story published last week in MIT Technology Review describing proposed efforts by at least three teams — one at Harvard and others in China — to genetically alter human embryos.
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, the Food and Drug Administration said it "has not made any decision" regarding clinical trials of genetically altered human embryos in the U.S.
"The FDA's primary concern, as we consider clinical trials using these technologies, will be the safety of the women participating in these studies and any children born as a result of these studies," the agency said.
Given the safety and ethical risks, genetic engineering of human embryos needs "open, public, international debate," George Annas, a medical ethics expert at Boston University, told BuzzFeed News by email.
"No case has yet been made to modify germ cells to make a 'better baby,'" Annas said. In particular, "it may take many generations before safety can be assured."
BuzzFeed News reached out to researchers at Harvard Medical School and OvaScience, a biotech firm based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which are reportedly involved in the controversial experiments. They have not yet responded to requests for comment.
Laboratory tools easing the editing of the human genome have only been around for about three years.
The gene editing tools target specific snippets of DNA and have been used in attempts to knock out defective genes from cattle, rats, and sheep.
In the experiments warned about in Nature, the DNA of human sperm and eggs would be genetically modified before their fusion, resulting in a genetically modified human embryo that could be implanted into a woman's womb. A baby born this way could conceivably be free of genes linked to diseases.
But that approach comes with serious problems, Lanphien said. While DNA editing may cut out defective genes, it can also randomly attack helpful ones. That means, as the commentary notes, "the precise effects of genetic modification to an embryo may be impossible to know until after birth."
Some of the animal experiments with embryo gene editing have led to disasters, the commentary added, resulting in unhealthy young born with a patchwork of altered genes.
Safety aside, standard medical ethics demands that a person gives consent before being experimented on, which is impossible for an embryo.
In Western Europe, 15 of 22 nations prohibit such experiments. And the U.S. National Institutes of Health, which funds most of the basic biomedical research in the country, has said it won't even look at proposals asking to fund this work.
In 1975, biologists called for a halt on early DNA-manipulation research at a now-famous conference in Asilomar, California.
During the one-year moratorium, the scientists created safety rules that became regulations guiding genetic engineering across the world. Since then, however, private companies have moved into the frontiers of biomedicine, enabling them to evade such restrictions.
Most famously, in 2001, biotechnology firm Advanced Cell Technology announced that it had attempted to clone a human embryo, sparking an international furor over human cloning and stem cells. That helped ignite a long-running political fight over human embryonic stem cells over the course of the Bush Administration that straitjacketed stem cell research for nearly a decade.
Not everyone believes the newly proposed moratorium is a good idea, however. "I am a bit wary of an Asilomar type convention" to set gene editing rules, Dartmouth genetic ethicist Ronald Green told BuzzFeed News by email. He suggested that gene editing might be morally acceptable to treat inherited diseases when there is no other hope of a cure.
In 2003, the U.S. President's Council on Bioethics published a report titled Beyond Therapy warning that genetic techniques might someday allow parents to design their children's looks, athletic ability, or personality traits. The development would raise the specter of a genetically unequal society, where the offspring of wealthy parents gain even more advantages over everyone else.
That report concluded that those kinds of designer babies were "far-fetched." Now, little more than a decade later, Lanphier and his colleagues suggest they may be imminent.
"Not just scientists, but every human being should have some kind of say before we begin altering our genes this way," Lanphier said. "I think if we thought about it carefully, we would agree to stop before we start."
This story has been updated to include comments from Ronald Green.
Warning of "the advent of a new era in biology and genetics," on Thursday prominent scientists and bioethicists joined the call for caution over human genetic engineering.
Led by Nobel Prize winner David Baltimore of Caltech, the group wrote in the journal Science that they "strongly discourage" genetic modification of human sperm, eggs, or embryos with newly developed technology.
The group, which included biologists active in the field such as Harvard's George Church, recommended that research continue into the safety of modifying genes passed on to the offspring of patients, rather than a moratorium. They also called for convening a "globally representative" group of genetic, legal and ethics experts to set guidelines for the future of genetic engineering.