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Statement by Prof. Katrin Amunts on the use of the molecular genetic scissors CRISPR/Cas9 in two girls

Jülich, 28 November 2018 – According to the researcher Jiankui He from Shenzhen University in China, the first humans to have been genetically manipulated using the CRISPR/Cas9 molecular genetic scissors were born in November. In two girls, a gene for a receptor of the immune system was purposefully removed in the embryonic stage in order to make them resistant to HIV infections. They will also pass this change on to their descendants.

Katrin Amunts, Vice-Chair of the German Ethics Council, commented:

"The genome of the two girls who, according to the researchers, were treated with CRISPR was altered by an intervention in the germline using a still very new experimental technique. Apparently, genome editing was complete in only one of the two. Possible consequences of this intervention for their further development are difficult to foresee and may only become apparent in many years’ time. For this reason alone, this is an ethical border violation which must be condemned sharply.

The question of whether such an intervention would be reasonable and necessary at all, even if the possible risks were controlled, is currently the subject of intense discussion. It is also clear that the risks of such an intervention in the human germline with changes that could be inherited by potential offspring are currently difficult to calculate. The vast majority of the scientific community therefore opposed it.

Last year, the German Ethics Council already recommended to the Federal Government that it campaign for an international regulation. A comprehensive opinion on this issue will follow in spring 2019.

The opportunities of gene editing for medical purposes are great. Public dialogue and raising awareness are prerequisites for a realistic assessment of opportunities, but also for countering exaggerated expectations and fears. In addition to intensive research efforts in this field, a broad, differentiated and responsible debate in society is necessary. It is important that this is not rendered impossible by the irresponsible actions of individuals who want to present us with faits accomplis.

A voluntary commitment on the part of science alone is apparently no longer sufficient. In the present case, the rules of ethical, biomedical research were deliberately circumvented and control mechanisms were undermined. Politicians are called upon to have a regulatory effect at national and international levels.