Life sciences risks: WHO recommends human genome manipulation

In what could prove to be a pivotal moment for life sciences, the World Health Organisation has given its seal of approval to human genome editing.

Releasing two reports, the WHO said that the studies are the result of broad, global consultations on the different types of gene therapies, which involve modifying a patient’s DNA to treat or cure diseases.

These include germline and heritable human genome editing which involves making changes to the genetic material, that can include developing human embryos.

WHO’s two-year analysis studied the diverse perspectives of hundreds of scientists, patients, faith leaders, indigenous peoples and others.

“These new reports from WHO’s Expert Advisory Committee represent a leap forward for this area of rapidly emerging science”, said WHO’s chief scientist, Soumya Swaminathan.

Potential benefits of human genome editing include faster and more accurate diagnosis, more targeted treatments and the ability to prevent genetic disorders.

Somatic gene therapies have successfully addressed HIV and sickle-cell disease, and the technique has the potential to vastly improve treatment for a variety of cancers.

The reports recommend the governance and oversight of human genome editing in nine discrete areas, including in registries; international studies; and illegal, unregistered, unethical research.

They focus on the system-level improvements needed to build capacity in all countries to ensure that human genome editing is used safely, effectively and ethically.

“As global research delves deeper into the human genome, we must minimize risks and leverage ways that science can drive better health for everyone, everywhere”, said Dr Swaminathan.

“Human genome editing has the potential to advance our ability to treat and cure disease, but the full impact will only be realized if we deploy it for the benefit of all people, instead of fuelling more health inequity between and within countries”, added Tedros Adhanom, Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO.

WHO said it will now convene a small expert committee to consider next steps for the registry, including how to better monitor clinical trials using human genome editing technologies of concern.

It will also gather participants to develop an accessible mechanism for confidential reporting on possibly illegal, unregistered, unethical and unsafe human genome editing research and other activities.

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