Inheritable gene modification research should not proceed on humans without standards and oversight, AAAS report says

September 17, 2000

Washington, DC - September 18, 2000 - Modifying human genes that can be transmitted to offspring is neither safe nor responsible at this time, according to a special report issued today by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The report identifies technological obstacles, the complexity of the ethical and religious implications and the absence of public oversight as issues that must be addressed before further research or application of technologies is undertaken. The report calls for the immediate appointment of a public body to oversee current research and development that can alter the human germ line.

The report reflects two-and-a-half years of study by a working group of scientists, ethicists, theologians and policy analysts convened by AAAS and funded by the Greenwall Foundation. Since the project began, studies involving animals have made it clear that scientists are improving the technical capacity to manipulate genetic material for transmission to future generations.

The panel looked at both the potential benefits of human inheritable gene modification (IGM) and the significant concerns about it. Recently, researchers announced credible success in improving patient health through somatic (non-inheritable) gene therapy, signaling that years of research are about to bear fruit. Theoretically, modifying genes that are transmitted to future generations could prevent and possibly decrease the incidence of certain inherited diseases, according to the report.

Currently, however, neither the safety nor efficacy of such genetic interventions has been determined, nor are they likely to be for the foreseeable future, due to technical obstacles. According to Dr. Mark S. Frankel, director of AAAS's Scientific Freedom, Responsibility and Law Program and co-author of the report, "IGM utilizing current methods for somatic gene transfer cannot presently be carried out responsibly on humans." Consequently, the AAAS report recommends that human trials of inheritable genetic changes should not be initiated until reliable techniques for gene correction or replacement are developed that meet agreed upon standards for safety and efficacy.

Serious ethical and religious issues also must be addressed as research policy is formulated, according to the report. IGM, for instance, raises questions of justice and the allocation of resources. Will IGM be a technology that only the wealthy and advantaged are able to access? What safeguards are necessary to prevent unequal access? IGM also could potentially affect our relationships with future generations, raising "major ethical concerns about the attitudes toward the human person, the nature of human reproduction, and the parent-child relationship," the report states.

According to Dr. Audrey R. Chapman, director of AAAS's Program of Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion and co-author of the report, "IGM for enhancement, meaning applications to produce improvements in human form or function, would be particularly problematic."

The report recommends that if a societal decision is made to proceed with IGM research, "comprehensive oversight mechanisms should be put in place to review and approve all IGM protocols for research and applications in both the public and private sectors." "The ethical and social issues," according to Frankel, "are sufficiently compelling to justify government oversight in this case."

Chapman also noted that a way must be found to hold an informed conversation with the American public to educate and empower them in the debate. "A meaningful dialogue on such an important topic can't be left solely to experts. It needs public deliberation."

AAAS, the world's largest federation of scientists, works to advance science for human well-being through its projects, programs and publications. With more than 146,000 members and 275 affiliated societies, AAAS conducts many programs in the areas of science policy, science education and international scientific cooperation. AAAS publishes the prestigious peer-reviewed journal Science, as well as a number of electronic features on the World Wide Web.
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EDITOR'S NOTE: For copies of the report, please contact Cate Alexander at 202-326-6431 or go to AAAS's Web site at http://www.aaas.org/spp/dspp/sfrl/germline/main.htm

American Association for the Advancement of Science
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