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 their own 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.
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Research on a "smart" bandage for wounds
- A breakthrough in fighting inflammation
- The pros and cons of a new drug for Alzheimer's
- Benefits of the Mediterranean diet - with a twist
- How to recycle a plastic that was un-recyclable
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are surging across the U.S. to 2.5 million cases in 2021 according to preliminary data from the CDC. A new prevention and treatment strategy now in clinical trials may provide a way to get a handle on them.
It's easy to overlook the soaring rates of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis because most of those infections have few or no symptoms and can be identified only through testing. But left untreated, they can lead to serious damage to nerves and tissue, resulting in infertility, blindness, and dementia. Infants developing in utero are particularly vulnerable.
Covid-19 played havoc with regular medical treatment and preventive care for many health problems, including STIs. After formal lockdowns ended, many people gradually became more socially engaged, with increases in sexual activity, and may have prioritized these activities over getting back in touch with their doctors.
A second blow to controlling STIs is that family planning clinics are closing left and right because of the Dobbs decision and legislation in many states that curtailed access to an abortion. Discussion has focused on abortion, but those same clinics also play a vital role in the diagnosis and treatment of STIs.
Routine public health is the neglected stepchild of medicine. It is called upon in times of crisis but as that crisis resolves, funding dries up. Labs have atrophied and personnel have been redirected to Covid, “so access to routine screening for STIs has been decimated,” says Jennifer Mahn, director of sexual and clinical health with the National Coalition of STD Directors.
A preview of what we likely are facing comes from Iowa. In 2017, the state legislature restricted funding to family health clinics in four counties, which closed their doors. A year later the statewide rate of gonorrhea skyrocketed from 83 to 153.7 cases per 100,000 people. “Iowa counties with clinic closures had a significantly larger increase,” according to a study published in JAMA. That scenario likely is playing out in countless other regions where access to sexual health care is shrinking; it will be many months before we have the data to know for sure.
A decades-old antibiotic finds a new purpose
Using drugs to protect against HIV, either as post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), has proven to be quite successful. Researchers wondered if the same approach might be applied to other STIs. They focused on doxycycline, or doxy for short. One of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics in the U.S., it’s a member of the tetracycline family that has been on the market since 1967. It is so safe that it’s used to treat acne.
Two small studies using doxy suggested that it could work to prevent STIs. A handful of clinical trials by different researchers and funding sources set out to generate the additional evidence needed to prove their hypothesis and change the standard of care.
Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted, “These are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use.
The first with results is the DoxyPEP study, conducted at two sexual health clinics in San Francisco and Seattle. It drew from a mix of transgender women and men who have sex with men, who had at least one diagnosed STI over the last year. The researchers divided the participants into two groups: one with people who were already HIV-positive and engaged in care, while the other group consisted of people who were on PrEP to prevent infection with HIV. For the active part of the study, a subset of the participants received doxy, and the rest of the participants did not.
The researchers intentionally chose to do the study in a population at the highest risk of having STIs, who were very health oriented, and “who were getting screened every three months or so as part of their PrEP program or their HIV care program,” says Connie Celum, a senior researcher at the University of Washington on the study.
Each member of the active group was given a supply of doxy and asked to take two pills within 72 hours of having sex where a condom was not used. The study was supposed to run for two years but, in May, it stopped halfway through, when a safety monitoring board looked at the data and recommended that it would be unethical to continue depriving the control group of the drug’s benefits.
Celum presented these preliminary results from the DoxyPEP study in July at the International AIDS Conference in Montreal. “We saw about a 56 percent reduction in gonorrhea, about 80 percent reduction in chlamydia and syphilis, so very significant reductions, and this is on a per quarter basis,” she told a later webinar.
In Kenya, another study is following a group of cisgender women who are taking the same two-pill regimen to prevent HIV, and the data from this research should become available in 2023. Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted that “these are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use, another effective prevention tool.
Antibiotic resistance is a potentially big concern. About 25 percent of gonorrhea strains circulating in the U.S. are resistant to the tetracycline class of drugs, including doxy; rates are higher elsewhere. But resistance often is a matter of degree and can be overcome with a larger or longer dose of the drug, or perhaps with a switch to another drug or a two-drug combination.
Research has shown that an established bacterial infection is more difficult to treat because it is part of a biofilm, which can leave only a small portion or perhaps none of the cell surface exposed to a drug. But a new infection, even one where the bacteria is resistant to a drug, might still be vulnerable to that drug if it's used before the bacterial biofilm can be established. Preliminary data suggests that may be the case with doxyPEP and drug resistant gonorrhea; some but not all new drug resistant infections might be thwarted if they’re treated early enough.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community.
Resistance does not seem to be an issue yet for chlamydia and syphilis even though doxy has been a recommended treatment for decades, but a remaining question is whether broader use of doxy will directly worsen antibiotic resistance in gonorrhea, or promote it in other STIs. And how will it affect the gut microbiome?
In addition, Celum notes that we need to understand whether doxy will generate mutations in other bacteria that might contribute to drug resistance for gonorrhea, chlamydia or syphilis. The studies underway aim to provide data to answer these questions.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community. That might affect doctors' willingness to prescribe the drug.
Turning research into action
The CDC makes policy recommendations for prevention services such as taking doxy, requiring some and leaving others optional. Celum says the CDC will be reviewing information from her trial at a meeting in December, but probably will wait until that study is published before making recommendations, likely in 2023. The San Francisco Department of Public Health issued its own guidance on October 20th and anecdotally, some doctors around the country are beginning to issue prescriptions for doxy to select patients.
About half of new STIs occur in young people ages 15 to 24, a group that is least likely to regularly see a doctor. And sexual health remains a great taboo for many people who don't want such information on their health record for prying parents, employers or neighbors to find out.
“People will go out of their way and travel extensive distances just to avoid that,” says Mahn, the National Coalition director. “People identify locations where they feel safe, where they feel welcome, where they don't feel judged,” Mahn explains, such as community and family planning clinics. They understand those issues and have fees that vary depending on a person’s ability to pay.
Given that these clinics already are understaffed and underfunded, they will be hard pressed to expand services covering the labor intensive testing and monitoring of a doxyPEP regimen. Sexual health clinics don't even have a separate line item in the federal budget for health. That is something the National Association of STI Directors is pushing for in D.C.
DoxyPEP isn't a panacea, and it isn't for everyone. “We really want to try to reach that population who is most likely going to have an STI in the next year,” says Celum, “Because that's where you are going to have the biggest impact.”