WHO panel pushes for genome editing research registry

A WHO advisory committee has spoken out against clinical applications of human germline genome editing. The panel, which formed in the wake of China’s germline modification scandal, wants WHO to create a central registry of human genome editing research as part of an effort to boost global governance of the field.

Germline editing shot up the list of global regulatory concerns late last year when a Chinese scientist claimed to have helped produce babies with edited genomes. WHO formed an expert panel to look into the scientific, ethical, social and legal challenges of human genome editing within weeks of the news, citing “the recent application of tools such as CRISPR-Cas9” to explain its action.

Now, the advisory committee has reported its initial findings. The committee thinks it is irresponsible to perform clinical applications of human germline genome editing at this time. And it wants to play a role in creating a strong international governance framework covering human genome editing.

Concrete details of the framework are yet to emerge. The one solid proposal to come out of the first two-day meeting of the advisory committee is the creation of a central registry of human genome editing research. The panel asked WHO to start work on establishing such a registry immediately and made recommendations intended to turn the organization into a source of information on the field.

In parallel, the committee plans to meet with scientists conducting human genome editing research to understand the current governance arrangements and the technical environment. The committee wants to help the scientists meet current scientific and ethical best practices.

The committee’s consultation with outside experts will carry on for two years and seek to hear from a range of people involved with and affected by genome research, including patients and ethicists. In doing so, the panel hopes to come up with a framework that is scalable, sustainable and works at every level from local to international.

“The committee will develop essential tools and guidance for all those working on this new technology to ensure maximum benefit and minimal risk to human health,” Soumya Swaminathan, WHO chief scientist, said in a statement.

WHO’s initial response comes weeks after China, the epicenter of concerns about genome editing, detailed plans to introduce a risk-based regulatory system for genetic technologies. China argues the germline editing that triggered the recent global backlash was prohibited under its existing rules on in vitro fertilization. But is planning to strengthen oversight of certain activities nonetheless.