Ethical concerns dog gene editing

The following story is part of a cover package VCJ published in its June issue about a new wave of investments related to gene editing and the moral implications investors must consider. Read the main story here: Gene editing rides new investment wave. —Ed.

In late April, GV Venture Partner Anthony Philippakis joined more than 60 academics and professionals to call for a global moratorium on germline gene editing.

The letter these prominent healthcare leaders submitted in April to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar followed the birth of twins in China after alterations were made to their embryos using CRIPR-Cas9 gene-editing techniques.

It was the most recent public manifestation of the thorny ethical issues engulfing gene editing.

“Performing human germline clinical experimentation of this kind is currently irresponsible, and we condemn it in the strongest possible terms,” the letter stated.

Germline experimentation allows genetic alterations to be passed on to future generations, while more tame changes to somatic cells not involved in reproduction aren’t inherited and stay with an individual.

The letter points to the challenges companies and investors face as they look to advance gene editing. It goes on to stress the medical potential of applying gene editing to somatic cells, arguing that present scientific methodology, including clinical trials, are sufficient safeguards here.

Nevertheless, entrepreneurs and investors acknowledge the magnitude of the debate and don’t deny its potential to make the privacy and data concerns dogging social media today seem trivial by comparison.

They say the ethical questions confront every company and every board. This means thinking hard about the medical need of a treatment and weighing it against the possible harm.

It also suggests that it the medical need is big enough and unmet, the technology will be easier to justify. The months and years ahead may see this distinction examined in great detail.