Tuesday, February 9, 2016

A follow-up on Jennifer Doudna’s views on CRISPR/Cas9-mediated human embryo editing

Yesterday, Etopia News published an article entitled “Neither inventor of CRISPR/Cas9 wants to comment on its use for embryo editing”, in which Robert Sanders, Manager, Science Communications, in the Office of Media Relations at UC Berkeley, was quoted as saying, in response to a query about Dr. Jennifer Doudna (inventor of CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing)’s position on the use of that biotechnology to edit the genome of viable human embryos, that: 

“Prof. Doudna does not work with embryonic cells and would not be the right person to address this question. None of her colleagues work with embryos either; they are focused on fixing genetic disease in children and adults, not the embryo. In addition, her schedule is very full and she has to turn down many media requests such as yours. I hope you are able to find an expert on embryonic research who can answer your questions.”

I had asked for her views on the degree to which embryo donors needed to give their permission for the use of their embryos in CRISPER/Cas9 experiments, and for any comments in general from her about the use of her invention on human embryos.  

I wrote:
"Anything else she’d like to say about the application of the technology she invented for the purpose of editing viable human embryos and creating customized embryonic stem cells would also be very welcome."
Well, even though he declined to share Dr. Doudna's views on this subject in his e-mail response to me, he is also.the author of a December 1, 2015, article on the UC Berkeley news website entitled “CRISPR inventor calls for pause in editing heritable genes,” in which the cautionary and nuanced views of Dr. Doudna on germline editing, which CRISPR/Cas9 enables, are clearly presented at length and in context.  He writes: inter alia:

“Doudna does not propose a ban, but outlines five specific steps needed to get to safe germline gene editing: common methods to evaluate the effectiveness of gene editing; more communication of the risks and benefits of germline editing; international cooperation to come up with approved guidelines for what is and is not ethical; oversight to evaluate advances in light of these guidelines; and a cautionary halt, for now, to heritable gene editing.”

Sounds like she’d be opposed to letting Dr. Kathy Niakan at the Francis Crick Institute in London go ahead with germline editing of human embryos as was recently green-lit by the U.K. Human  Fertilisation & Embryology Authority (HFEA) (though it is still contingent upon approval by an appropriate and not-yet-designated Research Ethics Committee [REC]).  Or maybe not.  I don't know.  That's why I asked her.

There’s a great video embedded in the article in which Dr. Doudna explains her views on using CRISPR/Cas9 to edit human embryos.  On the whole, she seems to be against it, at least for now. 

I'm sorry I didn’t Google it sooner.  It certainly makes clear exactly why Dr. Doudna and her team, as was made emphatically clear in his e-mail quoted above, are not doing anything with embryos. 

That’s because it’s something she doesn’t think ought to be done, and I’m glad to be able to set the record straight on that.  She's not using her invention to do germline editing of human embryos and she doesn't think others ought to be doing it either.

If I misunderstood anything in this interaction, I apologize pre-emptively and express my appreciation to Robert Sanders both for responding to my initial inquiry and for writing a great article that clearly provides the answer to it

To watch Dr. Doudna eloquently address these issues in a TED talk, click here.

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