Information workplace | ILLINOIS

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Genome editing of human embryos is one of the most controversial potential scientific applications today. But what if geneticists could get around the controversy by manipulating sperm and eggs instead?

According to a new paper co-written by a University of Illinois legal expert at Urbana-Champaign examining the ethical and political implications of advanced biotechnologies, the next Congress’s decision to address the issue will be based on science, ethics, and finance of genome editing will have an impact for decades to come.

While there are a number of laws and federal appropriation tabs that use the human embryo as a bioethical center, none that regulate the processing of “gametes” – that is, sperm and egg cells – said Jacob S. Sherkow, professor of law at Illinois .

“The current federal funding ban is based on a concept of bioethics that focuses on the embryo, and that is because it is widely recognized in US society that embryos have a certain moral significance that other biological components do not” , he said. “But you can get around that with advances in biotechnology. You can bypass embryo editing by editing sperm and egg cells instead.

“Regardless of how you think about whether embryos should be given special bioethical status in this context, you have to understand that the same technology can now be applied to sperm and egg cells. So the ban on federal funding of embryo genetic manipulation with technologies like CRISPR may not extend to future generations of the technology – and those future generations will come quickly. “

In the article, Sherkow and co-authors Eli Y. Adashi from Brown University and I. Glenn Cohen from Harvard Law School discuss how processing sperm and egg cells differs from embryos from a bioethical and US legal perspective.

“This is particularly timely for two reasons,” he said. “For one thing, genome editing technology is becoming more effective, cheaper, and safer every day; and second, this is an election year. We will hold a new congress in January, and whether we continue on this path will have to be decided by the new congress. “

The most important law banning the clinical use of heritable genomic editing is an annually renewed congressional approval tab, which first came into effect in 2015.

According to Sherkow and his colleagues, the driver was initially dropped into a household bill without discussion. The language was temporarily removed last year, sparking a debate about whether it applies to certain mitochondrial replacement therapies and should be reintroduced.

“The debate has focused firmly on embryo processing, but no legislator has checked whether the language also applies to sperm and egg processing,” said Sherkow. “And there are strong arguments that the rider’s plaintext does not apply to sperm and egg cells.”

If the grant tab does not cover sperm and egg processing, then those who believe that such processing is as problematic as embryo processing should “try to change the tab so that it can also be used for processing Sperm and ova applies, ”Sherkow said.

“Some of the ethical concerns about embryo processing apply to sperm and egg processing and some do not,” he said. “The objections to embryonic gene editing due to the need to destroy human embryos in research and clinical applications are very different for sperm and egg cells.”

Those who have spoken out against embryo destruction, including members of some religious communities, have not raised similar objections to sperm and egg processing, Sherkov said.

“Proponents of embryonic personality claims emphasize that the genetic code of the early embryo is established at the time sperm and eggs form a zygote. But sperm and egg processing occurs before that moment, which refutes the claim that gamete processing changes ‘a person’ and is really comparable to choosing a sperm or egg donor. “

At the same time, policymakers should be encouraged by the notion that “we don’t necessarily have to stop research on these technologies because we now have the ability to do so in gametes rather than embryos,” said Sherkow, who is also a subsidiary of Carl R. Woese Institute for Genome Biology.

“The new Congress, which will meet in January, should pay attention to the development of such genome-editing technologies and better understand the extent to which it intends to limit research, since this research is without some of the moral trappings that previous Congresses have blocked,” he said. “For those who believe that there are important differences between embryos and gametes, this may offer an opportunity to develop another regulated way of processing sperm and egg cells.”

The paper was published in the Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics.

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