Just Say No to Editing Human Embryos for Reproduction
BIG QUESTION OF THE MONTH: Should we use CRISPR, the new technique that enables precise DNA editing, to change the genes of human embryos to eradicate disease – or even to enhance desirable traits? LeapsMag invited three leading experts to weigh in.
Over the last few decades, the international community has issued several bioethical guidelines and legally binding documents, ranging from UN Declarations to regional charters to national legislation, about editing the human germline--the DNA that is passed down to future generations. There was a broad consensus that modifications should be prohibited. But now that CRISPR-cas9 and related methods of gene editing are taking the world by storm, that stance is softening--and so far, no thorough public discussion has emerged.
There is broad agreement in the scientific and ethics community that germline gene editing must not be clinically applied unless safety concerns are resolved. Predicting that safety issues will indeed be minimized, the National Academy of Sciences issued a report this past February that sets up several procedural norms. These may serve as guidelines for future implementation of human embryo editing, among them that there are no "reasonable alternatives," a condition that is left deliberately vague.
I regard the conditional embrace of germline gene editing as a grave mistake: It is a dramatic break with the previous idea of a ban, departing also from the moratorium that the UNESCO International Bioethics Committee had recommended in 2015. But in a startling move, the Academy already set the next post, recommending "that genome editing for purposes other than treatment or prevention of disease and disability should not proceed at this time" (my emphasis). It recommended public discussions, but without spelling out its own role in facilitating them.
"The international community should explicitly ban embryo gene editing as a method of human reproduction."
To proceed ethically, I argue that the international community, through the United Nations and in line with the ban on human reproductive cloning, should explicitly ban embryo gene editing as a method of human reproduction. Together with guidelines adjusted for non-reproductive and non-human applications, a prohibition would ensure two important results: First, that non-reproductive human embryo research could be pursued in a responsible way in those countries that allow for it, and second, that individual scientists, public research institutes, and private companies would know the moral limit of possible research.
Basic human embryo research is required, scientists argue, to better understand genetic diseases and early human development. I do not question this, and I am convinced that existing guidelines can be adjusted to meet the moral requirements in this area. Millions of people may benefit from different non-reproductive pathways of gene editing. Germline gene editing, in contrast, does not offer any resolutions to global or local health problems – and that alone raises many concerns about the current state of scientific research.
I support a ban because germline gene editing for reproductive purposes concerns more than safety. The genetic modification of a human being is irreversible and unpredictable in its epigenetic, personal, and social effects. It concerns the rights of children; it exposes persons with disabilities to social stigmatization; it contradicts the global justice agenda with respect to healthcare; and it infringes upon the rights to freedom and well-being of future persons.
"Reproductive germline gene editing directly violates the rights of individual future person."
Apart from questions of justice, reproductive germline gene editing may well increase the stigmatization of persons with disabilities. I want to emphasize here, however, that it directly violates the rights of individual future persons, namely a future child's right to genetic integrity, to freedom, and potentially to well-being, all guaranteed in different UN Declarations of Human Rights. For all these reasons, it is an unacceptable path forward.
The way the discussion has been framed so far is very different from my perspective that situates germline gene editing in the broader framework of human rights and responsibilities. In short, many others never questioned the goal but instead focused on the unintentional side-effects of an otherwise beneficial technique for human reproduction. Some scientists see germline gene editing as an alternative to embryo selection via Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD), a procedure in which multiple embryos are tested to find out which ones carry disease-causing mutations. Others see it as the first step to human enhancement.
Some physicians argue that in the field of assisted reproduction, not every couple is comfortable with embryo selection via PGD, because potentially, unchosen embryos are discarded. Germline gene editing offers them an alternative. It is rarely mentioned, however, that germline gene editing would most likely still require PGD as a control of the procedure (though without the purpose of selection), and that prenatal genetic diagnosis would also be highly recommended. In other words, germline gene editing would not replace existing protocols but rather change their purpose, and it would also not necessarily reduce the number of embryos needed for assisted reproduction.
In some (rare) cases, PGD is not an option, because in the couples' condition, all embryos will be affected. One current option to avoid transmitting genetic traits is to use a donor sperm or egg, though the resulting child would not be genetically related to one parent. If these parents had an obligation, as some proponents argue, to secure the health of their offspring (an argument that I do not follow), then procreation with sperm or egg donation would even be morally required, as this is the safest procedure to erase a given genetic trait.
There are no therapeutic scenarios that exclusively require reproductive gene editing even if one accepts the right to reproductive autonomy. The fact is that couples who rightly wish to secure and protect the health of their future children can be offered medical alternatives in all cases. However, this requires considering sperm or egg donation as the safest and most reasonable option – the condition the NAS Report has set.
Scientists in favor of germline gene editing argue against this: the desire for genetic kinship, they say, is a legitimate expression of a couple's reproductive freedom, and germline gene editing offers them an alternative to have a healthy child. In the future, proponents say, these (very few) couples who wish for genetically related offspring will be faced with the dilemma of either accepting the transmission of a genetic health risk to their children or weighing the benefits and risks of gene editing.
But here is a blind spot in the whole discussion.
Many scientists and some bioethicists think that reproductive freedom includes the right to a genetically related child. But even if we were to presuppose such a right, it is not absolute in the context of assisted reproduction. Although sperm or egg donation may be undesirable for some couples, the moral question of responsibility does not disappear with their reproductive rights. At a minimum, the future child's rights must be considered, and these rights go further than their health rights.
It is puzzling that in claiming theirown reproductive freedom, couples would need to ignore their children's and possibly grandchildren's future freedom – including the constraints resulting from being monitored over the course of their lives and the indirect constraints of the children's own right to reproductive freedom. From a medical standpoint, it would be highly recommended for them, too, to have children through assisted reproduction. This distinguishes germline gene editing from any other procedure of assisted reproduction: we need the data from the second and third generations to see whether the method is safe and efficacious. Whose reproductive freedom should count, the parents' or the future children's?
But for now, the question of parental rights may well divert the discussion from the question of responsible gene editing research; its conditions and structures require urgent evaluation and adjustment to guide international research groups.I am concerned that we are in the process of developing a new technology that has tremendous potential and ramifications – but without having considered the ethical framework for a responsible path forward.
Swiss researchers have discovered a third type of brain cell that appears to be a hybrid of the two other primary types — and it could lead to new treatments for many brain disorders.
The challenge: Most of the cells in the brain are either neurons or glial cells. While neurons use electrical and chemical signals to send messages to one another across small gaps called synapses, glial cells exist to support and protect neurons.
Astrocytes are a type of glial cell found near synapses. This close proximity to the place where brain signals are sent and received has led researchers to suspect that astrocytes might play an active role in the transmission of information inside the brain — a.k.a. “neurotransmission” — but no one has been able to prove the theory.
A new brain cell: Researchers at the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering and the University of Lausanne believe they’ve definitively proven that some astrocytes do actively participate in neurotransmission, making them a sort of hybrid of neurons and glial cells.
According to the researchers, this third type of brain cell, which they call a “glutamatergic astrocyte,” could offer a way to treat Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other disorders of the nervous system.
“Its discovery opens up immense research prospects,” said study co-director Andrea Volterra.
The study: Neurotransmission starts with a neuron releasing a chemical called a neurotransmitter, so the first thing the researchers did in their study was look at whether astrocytes can release the main neurotransmitter used by neurons: glutamate.
By analyzing astrocytes taken from the brains of mice, they discovered that certain astrocytes in the brain’s hippocampus did include the “molecular machinery” needed to excrete glutamate. They found evidence of the same machinery when they looked at datasets of human glial cells.
Finally, to demonstrate that these hybrid cells are actually playing a role in brain signaling, the researchers suppressed their ability to secrete glutamate in the brains of mice. This caused the rodents to experience memory problems.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Andrea Volterra, University of Lausanne.
But why? The researchers aren’t sure why the brain needs glutamatergic astrocytes when it already has neurons, but Volterra suspects the hybrid brain cells may help with the distribution of signals — a single astrocyte can be in contact with thousands of synapses.
“Often, we have neuronal information that needs to spread to larger ensembles, and neurons are not very good for the coordination of this,” researcher Ludovic Telley told New Scientist.
Looking ahead: More research is needed to see how the new brain cell functions in people, but the discovery that it plays a role in memory in mice suggests it might be a worthwhile target for Alzheimer’s disease treatments.
The researchers also found evidence during their study that the cell might play a role in brain circuits linked to seizures and voluntary movements, meaning it’s also a new lead in the hunt for better epilepsy and Parkinson’s treatments.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Volterra.
Martin Taylor was only 32 when he was diagnosed with Parkinson's, a disease that causes tremors, stiff muscles and slow physical movement - symptoms that steadily get worse as time goes on.
“It's horrible having Parkinson's,” says Taylor, a data analyst, now 41. “It limits my ability to be the dad and husband that I want to be in many cruel and debilitating ways.”
Today, more than 10 million people worldwide live with Parkinson's. Most are diagnosed when they're considerably older than Taylor, after age 60. Although recent research has called into question certain aspects of the disease’s origins, Parkinson’s eventually kills the nerve cells in the brain that produce dopamine, a signaling chemical that carries messages around the body to control movement. Many patients have lost 60 to 80 percent of these cells by the time they are diagnosed.
For years, there's been little improvement in the standard treatment. Patients are typically given the drug levodopa, a chemical that's absorbed by the brain’s nerve cells, or neurons, and converted into dopamine. This drug addresses the symptoms but has no impact on the course of the disease as patients continue to lose dopamine producing neurons. Eventually, the treatment stops working effectively.
BlueRock Therapeutics, a cell therapy company based in Massachusetts, is taking a different approach by focusing on the use of stem cells, which can divide into and generate new specialized cells. The company makes the dopamine-producing cells that patients have lost and inserts these cells into patients' brains. “We have a disease with a high unmet need,” says Ahmed Enayetallah, the senior vice president and head of development at BlueRock. “We know [which] cells…are lost to the disease, and we can make them. So it really came together to use stem cells in Parkinson's.”
In a phase 1 research trial announced late last month, patients reported that their symptoms had improved after a year of treatment. Brain scans also showed an increased number of neurons generating dopamine in patients’ brains.
Increases in dopamine signals
The recent phase 1 trial focused on deploying BlueRock’s cell therapy, called bemdaneprocel, to treat 12 patients suffering from Parkinson’s. The team developed the new nerve cells and implanted them into specific locations on each side of the patient's brain through two small holes in the skull made by a neurosurgeon. “We implant cells into the places in the brain where we think they have the potential to reform the neural networks that are lost to Parkinson's disease,” Enayetallah says. The goal is to restore motor function to patients over the long-term.
Five patients were given a relatively low dose of cells while seven got higher doses. Specialized brain scans showed evidence that the transplanted cells had survived, increasing the overall number of dopamine producing cells. The team compared the baseline number of these cells before surgery to the levels one year later. “The scans tell us there is evidence of increased dopamine signals in the part of the brain affected by Parkinson's,” Enayetallah says. “Normally you’d expect the signal to go down in untreated Parkinson’s patients.”
"I think it has a real chance to reverse motor symptoms, essentially replacing a missing part," says Tilo Kunath, a professor of regenerative neurobiology at the University of Edinburgh.
The team also asked patients to use a specific type of home diary to log the times when symptoms were well controlled and when they prevented normal activity. After a year of treatment, patients taking the higher dose reported symptoms were under control for an average of 2.16 hours per day above their baselines. At the smaller dose, these improvements were significantly lower, 0.72 hours per day. The higher-dose patients reported a corresponding decrease in the amount of time when symptoms were uncontrolled, by an average of 1.91 hours, compared to 0.75 hours for the lower dose. The trial was safe, and patients tolerated the year of immunosuppression needed to make sure their bodies could handle the foreign cells.
Claire Bale, the associate director of research at Parkinson's U.K., sees the promise of BlueRock's approach, while noting the need for more research on a possible placebo effect. The trial participants knew they were getting the active treatment, and placebo effects are known to be a potential factor in Parkinson’s research. Even so, “The results indicate that this therapy produces improvements in symptoms for Parkinson's, which is very encouraging,” Bale says.
Tilo Kunath, a professor of regenerative neurobiology at the University of Edinburgh, also finds the results intriguing. “I think it's excellent,” he says. “I think it has a real chance to reverse motor symptoms, essentially replacing a missing part.” However, it could take time for this therapy to become widely available, Kunath says, and patients in the late stages of the disease may not benefit as much. “Data from cell transplantation with fetal tissue in the 1980s and 90s show that cells did not survive well and release dopamine in these [late-stage] patients.”
Searching for the right approach
There's a long history of using cell therapy as a treatment for Parkinson's. About four decades ago, scientists at the University of Lund in Sweden developed a method in which they transferred parts of fetal brain tissue to patients with Parkinson's so that their nerve cells would produce dopamine. Many benefited, and some were able to stop their medication. However, the use of fetal tissue was highly controversial at that time, and the tissues were difficult to obtain. Later trials in the U.S. showed that people benefited only if a significant amount of the tissue was used, and several patients experienced side effects. Eventually, the work lost momentum.
“Like many in the community, I'm aware of the long history of cell therapy,” says Taylor, the patient living with Parkinson's. “They've long had that cure over the horizon.”
In 2000, Lorenz Studer led a team at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Centre, in New York, to find the chemical signals needed to get stem cells to differentiate into cells that release dopamine. Back then, the team managed to make cells that produced some dopamine, but they led to only limited improvements in animals. About a decade later, in 2011, Studer and his team found the specific signals needed to guide embryonic cells to become the right kind of dopamine producing cells. Their experiments in mice, rats and monkeys showed that their implanted cells had a significant impact, restoring lost movement.
Studer then co-founded BlueRock Therapeutics in 2016. Forming the most effective stem cells has been one of the biggest challenges, says Enayetallah, the BlueRock VP. “It's taken a lot of effort and investment to manufacture and make the cells at the right scale under the right conditions.” The team is now using cells that were first isolated in 1998 at the University of Wisconsin, a major advantage because they’re available in a virtually unlimited supply.
Other efforts underway
In the past several years, University of Lund researchers have begun to collaborate with the University of Cambridge on a project to use embryonic stem cells, similar to BlueRock’s approach. They began clinical trials this year.
A company in Japan called Sumitomo is using a different strategy; instead of stem cells from embryos, they’re reprogramming adults' blood or skin cells into induced pluripotent stem cells - meaning they can turn into any cell type - and then directing them into dopamine producing neurons. Although Sumitomo started clinical trials earlier than BlueRock, they haven’t yet revealed any results.
“It's a rapidly evolving field,” says Emma Lane, a pharmacologist at the University of Cardiff who researches clinical interventions for Parkinson’s. “But BlueRock’s trial is the first full phase 1 trial to report such positive findings with stem cell based therapies.” The company’s upcoming phase 2 research will be critical to show how effectively the therapy can improve disease symptoms, she added.
The cure over the horizon
BlueRock will continue to look at data from patients in the phase 1 trial to monitor the treatment’s effects over a two-year period. Meanwhile, the team is planning the phase 2 trial with more participants, including a placebo group.
For patients with Parkinson’s like Martin Taylor, the therapy offers some hope, though Taylor recognizes that more research is needed.
“Like many in the community, I'm aware of the long history of cell therapy,” he says. “They've long had that cure over the horizon.” His expectations are somewhat guarded, he says, but, “it's certainly positive to see…movement in the field again.”
"If we can demonstrate what we’re seeing today in a more robust study, that would be great,” Enayetallah says. “At the end of the day, we want to address that unmet need in a field that's been waiting for a long time.”