WHO Plans to Develop Oversight Standards for Gene Editing Following Chinese Researcher’s Experiment

Headquarters of the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland

Headquarters of the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland. Credit: Martin Good / Shutterstock.com

Following international concern and outrage over a gene editing treatment of human embryos in China, the World Health Organization (WHO) is taking action.

On Thursday, WHO announced it was assembling a panel of experts to form an advisory committee to develop global standards for the governance and oversight of human genome editing. According to WHO’s brief statement, the aim of the committee will be to advise and make recommendations on appropriate governance mechanisms for human genome editing. Committee members will examine the scientific, ethical, social and legal challenges associated with the practice.

Click to search for life sciences jobs

The committee includes 18 members will meet in Switzerland next month to review the current landscape of genome editing and develop a working plan for the next 12 to 18 months, according to the announcement.

The call for the formation of the committee came after it was revealed late last year that He Jiankui, a researcher in Shenzhen, China, reported that he had used CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing to alter the DNA of embryos to protect them from the HIV virus. As BioSpace first reported in November 2018, Jiankui used the gene editing technique to disable a gene known as CCR5. The gene creates a protein that allows HIV to enter the cells. The embryos that Jiankui conducted his gene editing experiment each had a father who has the HIV virus. Jiankui said he performed the experiment to protect the children from developing HIV, although he noted that each of the fathers was using treatments that strongly suppressed their virus.

According to earlier reports, Jiankui used CRISPR editing during in vitro fertilization (IVF). The sperm of the HIV-infected fathers was “washed” to separate it from semen, where HIV is present. A single sperm was then inserted into a single egg to create an embryo and the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing tool was then applied. When the embryos were less than a week old, he then examined cells for editing. It was then the parents of the embryos could choose whether to use edited or unedited embryos in the IVF process.

Following the announcement, researchers across the world responded that Jiankui’s experiment was unethical and “monstrous,” particularly since it is unknown how those edits could be passed down to future generations of children. Researchers said the type of editing conducted in China is significantly different than using a CRISPR technique to make a change in a single individual to combat a disease.

Two weeks ago, the Chinese government took action against Jiankui. The government said the scientist was transferred to public security authorities and the individuals who participated in the experiment will be “severely dealt with according to the law.” At the end of January, the Chinese government said implanting these types of embryos is illegal in that country and added that Jiankui forged an ethics review in order to begin his experiment. China’s science ministry said it “resolutely opposed” Jiankui’s experiment and would work to “improve relevant laws and regulations and improve the scientific research ethics review system.”

Back to news