Will gene editing human embryos ever be safe?

Debates continue about whether the societal risks of heritable genome editing are too great to proceed, as do calls for broadly inclusive public participation in such deliberations. In the meantime, we’ve been learning a lot about what can go wrong when using CRISPR to edit human embryos.

In October [2020], the journal Cell published an article describing significant damage to human embryos edited with CRISPR. The experiments conducted in Dieter Egli’s lab at Columbia University found unintended rearrangements or deletions of large stretches of DNA at and around the targeted site.

The idea that reducing technical errors in embryo editing experiments proves heritable genome editing safe continues to miss consideration of a broader set of problems. These include risks to any women who would carry gene-edited pregnancies, as well as risks to the health and well-being of any children born from edited embryos, and to any subsequent generations. Beyond these concerns lie urgent questions about the societal risks of altering the genes of future children and generations, which we have barely begun to discuss.

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Safety is far from the only thing we need to discuss in making decisions about whether to pursue heritable genome editing, but recent scientific findings confirm that the question of whether it will ever be safe is far from settled.

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