Dr Andy Greenfield, Programme Leader at MRC Harwell, has been invited to become a member of the new International Commission on the Clinical Use of Human Germline Genome Editing, formed by the US National Academy of Sciences, the US National Academy of Medicine and the UK Royal Society.
Genetic engineering has been carried out since the 1970s, but the advent of CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing in recent years has revolutionised the science of genetics. Genome editing has been used in research into multiple plant and non-human animal species, such as the mouse. While it may have the potential to prevent genetic disorders, the concept of modifying the human genome to produce inheritable changes is highly controversial and human germline genome editing has been outlawed in more than 40 countries.
At the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing, held in Hong Kong in November 2018, Chinese scientist He Jiankui claimed to have used CRISPR technology to create the world’s first genome-edited babies. The announcement of the twin girls’ birth was met with widespread criticism and condemnation from both the global scientific community and the public for violating ethical and scientific standards, highlighting the need for an international framework for the use of human genome editing techniques.
The Commission, comprised of expert representatives from 10 nations, will consider what the most suitable framework for the clinical use of human germline genome editing would be should the technique receive the acceptance of society and state leaders in the future. Members will meet throughout the coming year to discuss matters such as possible protocols, criteria and methods of long-term monitoring, and will publish a final report in spring 2020.
Andy has been Chair of Harwell’s Animal Welfare and Ethical Review Body (AWERB) since 2010 and has given many talks on the ethics and regulation of animal research. His lab has focused on the genetics of sex determination and differences of sex development in mice since it was founded in 1996, but he has also been involved in the area of human genetics for the last 10 years. Andy was a member of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) between 2009 and 2018 and chaired two expert panels assessing the safety and efficacy of mitochondrial donation (also known as three-person IVF), and remains an external advisor to HEFA’s Scientific and Clinical Advances Advisory Committee (SCAAC). He was appointed as a member of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics (NCOB) in 2014, chaired a working group examining ethical implications of genome editing in 2016, and has been invited to speak about genome editing at multiple summits and inquiries.
“This is an important project of work and I am looking forward to contributing”, says Andy. “The question isn’t only ‘Should we use genome editing to influence inheritable human characteristics?’, although this is clearly important and answering it requires a big conversation in our society. Rather, the commission will examine how we might establish that germline genome editing is safe and how we could ensure effective oversight of the technology were it to be introduced into the clinic at some point in the future.”
The official announcement and full list of members can be read here.