Human genome editing committee created after industry calls for standards

By Maggie Lynch contact

- Last updated on GMT

(Image: Getty/ Oleksandr Bushko)
(Image: Getty/ Oleksandr Bushko)

Related tags: Gene editing, CRISPR, Ethics, Pharma industry, Cell line development, Embryonic stem cell, China

The WHO establishes a multi-disciplinary committee to advise on the ethical and scientific challenges of human genome editing, as the technology’s capability and utilization grows in the industry.

The World Health Organization (WHO) Expert Advisory Committee on Developing Global Standards for Governance and Oversight of Human Genome editing will examine the scientific, ethical, social, and legal challenges associated with human genome editing.

Together members of the committee will advise on appropriate governance mechanisms for human genome editing​, as well as making recommendations for its use.

The Committee will first meet on March 18-19 in Geneva to review the current landscape and agree on a workplan for the coming 12-18 months.

Members of the committee will serve in an independent and personal capacity – the individuals represent a range of disciplines as the group was formed after an open call for members. Despite varying backgrounds, all members have been assessed for potential conflict of interests.  

The board will be co-chaired by Justice Edwin Cameron, a judge on the Constitutional Court of South Africa and is a significant HIV/AIDS activist. As well as, Margaret Hamburg who currently serves as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and previously served as the 21st​ Commissioner of the FDA.

Calling for standards

WHO stated in its call for members​ that, with the recent application of tools like CRISPR/Cas9​ used to edit the human genome, there has been a clear need for the development of standards within this area.

Members of the scientific community have heard this call for standards after He Jiankui​ of Southern University of Science and Technology claimed he altered the genomes of twin girls with CRISPR, known as Nana and Lulu.

Jiankui is being investigated by China’s Ministry of Science and Technology for possible violations of laws prohibiting these experiments on human embryos, however, it is not clear if the laws and standards on the technology’s use, the Ethical Guidelines for Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research, apply to this situation.

Jiankui used CRISPR to edit the CCR5 gene​ to protect the embryos against HIV, which the twin’s father had contracted. Scientists vocalized that embryo editing is justified but only if it addresses a severe medical need, which HIV is not as it is preventable and treatable.

The United Nations and other international agencies will be in communication with the committee, as well as the Academies of Science and Medicine, a group of nonprofit institutions that serve to provide expert advice on challenges facing the scientific community.

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