(credit: Georgetown)

WASHINGTON DC—In the decades since learning how to splice DNA, scientists have anxiously debated the ethics and ramifications of editing the genetic blueprints of humans—from the moral quagmires of eugenics and made-to-order babies to more nuanced uses in basic research and disease treatments. Do scientists understand enough of human biology to safely become life’s editors? Should researchers be able to edit unviable human embryos for research? If altered genes are heritable, does that infringe on the rights of the next generation? If scientists have the genetic capabilities to cure a disease, do they have an obligation to do it?

There are a lot of questions and huge differences in opinion within the research community. Regulations also vary wildly across the globe, with some countries instituting bans on certain practices and others embracing engineering. But amid the long-smoldering debate, new technology that makes it extremely easy to edit human cells, including germ-line cells (eggs and sperm), has brought theoretical uses closer to reality, reigniting concerns.

On Tuesday, hundreds of researchers from across the globe gathered in Washington, DC for a three-day summit aimed at hashing out the issues of editing human genes. The summit, co-hosted by the US National Academy of Sciences, US National Academy of Medicine, Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the UK's Royal Society, is the start of a larger effort by the US National Academies to come up with a consensus study on the use of editing technology. The Academies expect to release the report in 2016.

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