Timing is everything: could CRISPR gene editing push CIRM to change its rules on funding stem cell research?


Talk about timely. When we decided, several months ago, to hold a Standards Working Group (SWG) meeting to talk about the impact of CRISPR, a tool that is transforming the field of human gene editing, we had no idea that our meeting would fall smack in the midst of a flurry of news stories about the potential, but also the controversy, surrounding this approach.

Within a few days of our meeting lawmakers in the UK had approved the use of CRISPR for gene editing in human embryos for fertility research —a controversial first step toward what some see as a future of designer babies. And a U.S. Food and Drug Advisory report said conducting mitochondrial therapy research on human embryos is “ethically permissible”, under very limited conditions.

So it was clear from the outset that the SWG meeting was going to be touching on some fascinating and fast moving science that was loaded with ethical, social and moral questions.

Reviewing the rules

The goal of the meeting was to see if, in the light of advances with tools like CRISPR, we at CIRM needed to make any changes to our rules and regulations regarding the funding of this kind of work. We already have some strong guidelines in place to help us determine if we should fund work that involves editing human embryos, but are they strong enough?

There were some terrific speakers – including Nobel Prize winner Dr. David Baltimore; Alta Charo, a professor of Law and Bioethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison  ; and Charis Thompson, chair of the Center for the Science, Technology, and Medicine in Society at the University of California, Berkeley – who gave some thought-provoking presentations. And there was also a truly engaged audience who offered some equally thought provoking questions.

CIRM Board member Jeff Sheehy highlighted how complex and broad ranging the issues are when he posed this question:

“Do we need to think about the rights of the embryo donor? If they have a severe inheritable disease and the embryo they donated for research has been edited, with CRISPR or other tools, to remove that potential do they have a right to know about that or even access to that technology for their own use?”

Alta Charo said this is not just a question for scientists, but something that could potentially affect everyone and so there is a real need to engage as many groups as possible in discussing it:

“How and to what extent do you involve patient advocates, members of the disability rights community and social justice community – racial or economic or geographic.  This is why we need these broader conversations, so we include all perspectives as we attempt to draw up guidelines and rules and regulations.”

It quickly became clear that the discussion was going to be even more robust than we imagined, and the issues raised were too many and too complex for us to hope to reach any conclusions or produce any recommendations in one day.

As Bernie Lo, President of the Greenwall Foundation in New York, who chaired the meeting said:

“We are not going to resolve these issues today, in fact what we have done is uncover a lot more issues and complexity.”

Time to ask tough questions

In the end it was decided that the most productive use of the day was not to limit the discussion at the workshop but to get those present to highlight the issues and questions that were most important and leave it to the SWG to then work through those and develop a series of recommendations that would eventually be presented to the CIRM Board.

The questions to be answered included but were not limited to:

1) Do we need to reconsider the language used in getting informed consent from donors in light of the ability of CRISPR and other technologies to do things that we previously couldn’t easily do?

2) Can we use CRISPR on previously donated materials/samples where general consent was given without knowing that these technologies could be available or can we only use it on biomaterials to be collected going forward?

3) Clarify whether the language we use about genetic modification should also include mitochondrial DNA as well as nuclear DNA.

4) What is the possibility that somatic or adult cell gene editing may lead to inadvertent germ line editing (altering the genomes of eggs and sperm will pass on these genetic modifications to the next generation).

5) How do we engage with patient advocates and other community groups such as the social justice and equity movements to get their input on these topics? Do we need to do more outreach and education among the public or specific groups and try to get more input from them (after all we are a taxpayer created and funded organization so we clearly have some responsibility to the wider California community and not just to researchers and patients)?

6) As CIRM already funds human embryo research should we now consider funding the use of CRISPR and other technologies that can modify the human embryo provided those embryos are not going to be implanted in a human uterus, as is the case with the recently approved research in the UK.

Stay tuned, more to come!

This was a really detailed dive into a subject that is clearly getting a lot of scientific attention around the world, and is no longer an abstract idea but is rapidly becoming a scientific reality. The next step is for a subgroup of the SWG to put together the key issues at stake here and place them in a framework for another discussion with the full SWG at some future date.

Once the SWG has reached consensus their recommendations will then go to the CIRM Board for its consideration.

We will be sure to update you on this as things progress.

To modify, or not to modify: Experts discuss human germline modification at WSCS15

The question of whether human germline modification, or the genetic modification of human reproductive cells, should be allowed or banned was discussed by a panel of experts in the Ethics, Law and Society session during Day 1 of the World Stem Cell Summit.

On the panel were Aubrey de Grey, Chief Science Officer of the SENS Foundation, Paul Knoepfler, Associate Professor at the UC Davis school of medicine (and a CIRM grantee), and Aaron Levine, Associate Professor of Public Policy at Georgia Tech.

Aubrey de Grey, Paul Knoepfler, Aaron Levine

Aubrey de Grey, Paul Knoepfler, Aaron Levine

What Paul Knoepfler said…

On the basic research side, Paul discussed how CRISPR has revolutionized the way germline modification is being done from the older, costly, time-consuming method using homologous recombination to the faster, more efficient, and cheaper gene editing technology that is CRISPR.

In the big picture, he said that, “people will pursue germline modification with a variety of different goals.” He further explained that because this will likely happen in the future, scientists need to consider the risks (off target effects to name one) and the societal and ethical impacts of this technology. Another question he said we should consider is, whether as a society, we support the modification of the germline for health or enhancement reasons.

He concluded with a recap of last week’s International Summit on Human Gene Editing saying that while the organizers didn’t put forth a definitive statement on whether there should be a moratorium on editing the human germline, he himself believes that there should be a temporary moratorium on the clinical use of this technology since the idea is still very controversial and there is no overall consensus within the scientific community.

What Aubrey de Grey said…

Aubrey began by saying that as a gerontologist, he is interested in all potential therapies that could postpone the effects of old age, many of which could involve genetic modification. He went on to say that it might not seem intuitive that editing the human germline would be applicable to fighting aging, but that:

“Even though the medical imperative to engaging genetic germline modification may seem to be less clear in the case of aging than it is for inherited diseases, which people are unequivocally agreed on that is a bad thing, never-the-less, the potential application to aging may actually play a significant role in the debate, because we’ve all got aging.”

He gave an example of the ApoE4 gene. If you have two copies of this form of the gene instead of the normal ApoE3 gene, then you have a very high risk of getting Alzheimer’s disease and atherosclerosis. He posed the question to the audience, asking them whether if they knew that they had this disease causing gene, would they consider genetically altering their fertilized eggs back into the safe ApoE3 version to prevent their offspring from inheriting disease even if the therapy wasn’t approved by the FDA. It’s a hard question to answer and Aubrey further commented that if we begin using genetic modification to prevent one disease, where would we draw the line and where would modification end?

He ended with saying that the real question we need to consider is “whether people will want to do germline modification against aging, even though the modifications may really be more in the way of enhancements than genuine therapies.”

What Aaron Levine said…

Aaron Levine began with saying that the question of human germline modification is an old question with new twists. By new twists he meant the recent advances in gene editing technologies like CRISPR and Zinc Finger Nucleases. He further commented that the baseline question of this debate is whether we should modify the DNA of the germline, and that how we do it isn’t as significant.

He played devil’s advocate by saying that germline editing would greatly benefit single gene disorders, but that we should think of the full spectrum. Many traits that we might want, we don’t know enough about and attempting to add or remove these traits using gene editing would be like shooting in the dark.

On policy side, Aaron commented that international policy harmonization would be nice, but that we should treat it skeptically. He said that not everyone is going to agree or follow the same rules and we need to consider this going forward. As for the FDA, he said that its role and regulations regarding germline editing aren’t clear and that these need to be defined.

One really interesting point he made was the issue of unproven stem cell clinics. They exist and pose a huge risk to human health. The real question, he said, is could this turn into unproven CRISPR clinics around the world? He ended with saying that someone will claim to offer this technology soon and asked what we should do about it.

From the peanut gallery…

One of the questions asked by the audience was whether it’s just a matter of time that one of the world’s governments might go forward with human germline modification because of the huge medical implications.

Paul responded first saying that there was a consensus at the gene editing summit that it’s more of a question of when, rather than if this would happen. Aaron agreed and said that he believed it would happen but wasn’t sure when, and followed with saying that the more important question is how it will be done, overseen, and what reasons the editing will be done for.

Bernie Siegel, who is the co-Chair of the World Stem Cell Summit, spoke at the end and said that the panel delivered exactly what he hoped it would. He emphasized a theme that I didn’t mention in this blog but that was brought up by each of the panelists: the voice of patients.

“One of the things missing from the [International Summit on Gene Editing] meeting was the voice of the patient community. Do they understand the concepts of CRISPR technology? Patients are a major stake holder group, and they have the most influence on creating change in policy. When we talk about a moratorium, the patients see it as a five-alarm fire. All they want is to see a few drips of water, and they can’t get it. From a societal and popular culture standpoint, these are a whole group of people that will be experiencing the sweeping changes of biotech today. When those voices that are receiving these technologies enter the conversation, it will be a full debate.”