CRISPR-Cas9: three specialists give their advice

In France, several establishments are considering the ethical questions raised by the use of the genetic editing technique, CRISPR-Cas9.

In the journal « Science et Santé » (Science and Health) in June 2016 edited by INSERM (Inserm : French public organization dedicated to biological , medical and public health research), three specialists give their opinion from scientific, ethical and regulatory viewpoints

Jean-Claude Ameisen, President of the National Ethics Consulting Committee (« CCNE”), shares his personal comments. He states “the possible applications of the CRISPR-Cas9 technique pose ethical problems”, especially for genetic therapy which led to international discussions and to the Oviedo Convention. “It appears necessary to have a moratorium on this type of treatment, at least for security reasons”, he feels, but that “research should be encouraged”.

According to molecular biologist, Carine Giovannangeli[i], « it is a genuine technological and scientific revolution which should lead to enormous progress in our comprehension of biological mechanisms of basic life sciences, genetic therapy and biotechnology. To avoid abuse, it is indispensable to ensure compliance of current health and safety procedures. In addition, the technique is not infallible; it should not be used to transmit modifications to human descendants. In her opinion, “research should include a variety of systems, not excluding germ cells”.

Agnès Saint-Raymond, Director of the Program Design Board for the European Medicines Agency, “the trials performed in China and the United States against HIV and beta-thalassemia demonstrate incomplete mastery of the technique, even if research is advancing quickly”. She explains that “in Europe, some countries such as the United Kingdom or Belgium, authorize the creation of embryos for research purposes and did not sign the Oviedo Convention. The Francis Crick Institute in London has just begun genetic research on fertility and embryo implantation.” Among the countries forbidding the modification of germ cells, some, such as France, carry out research on embryos without having parental projects pending. The European Commission is therefore reticent to finance all genetic research on embryos while there are such substantial differences. But the train has already left the station: the debate is no longer whether a moratorium is needed for this promising technique. Good standard practices and evaluation of reports on safety and efficacy should be the criteria for any authorization. Ethical questions should be enlightening rather than coercive. For some parents transmitting a genetic disease to their off-spring is a very heavy burden. Wouldn’t there be a medical interest to avoid this by intervening on germ cells? In an uncertain context, modifying the species seems to be very adventurous, but the debate is not only for doctors: the entire public should be able to participate!”      

Tugdual Derville, Alliance VITA’s General Delegate and supporter of the Stop GM Baby petition, comments on these opinions:

« We have noted that numerous specialists agree on the severity of risks related to genetically modifying the human embryo or gametes. Nevertheless, they are remarkably timid when it comes to guidelines for embryo research. However, such research represents the first step towards sliding quickly towards eugenic and trans-humanist practices.

We need to be rational: if these techniques are perfected, and demonstrate that in the future these modified embryos are viable, one will want to see GM babies born. They will be life-long guinea pigs of the technique that manufactured them. France should be at the ethical forefront, as it currently is on an international level when it defends the non-commodification of the human body and its products. Ethical guidelines for research on embryos and gametes should be addressed in a concerted international action, where our country can be a leader.”

For further information

Op-ed article « Humble faced with the embryo » by Tugdual Derville