Expert Pitch: FSU professor explains changing attitudes toward embryonic gene editing

David Gilbert, J. Herbert Taylor Distinguished Professor of Molecular Biology
David Gilbert, J. Herbert Taylor Distinguished Professor of Molecular Biology

A recent 261-page report from the esteemed National Academy of Sciences has provoked widespread concern that scientists are treading hastily into a world where reality is indistinguishable from science fiction.

The report, titled “Human Genome Editing: Science, Ethics, and Governance,” has left many unnerved by its raft of policy suggestions — most notably that, if the formidable technical hurdles are overcome, and in a very limited set of cases where there is no other practical recourse, the genetic editing of viable human embryos should be permitted.

Many see this as a frightening sign of a near future where selective and exclusive human genetic enhancement will be the norm, but David Gilbert, the FSU J. Herbert Taylor Distinguished Professor of Molecular Biology, takes a more tempered approach.

“The National Academy of Sciences is making recommendations about guidelines, they aren’t making laws,” Gilbert said. “After careful discussion of the ethical, social and medical benefits and risks of this rapidly approaching technology, they’re giving their seal of approval for manipulating human embryos only in cases of serious disease where there are no reasonable alternatives.”

Among some, the report has incited fear about generations of humans who have been genetically engineered in sterile laboratories.

Gilbert, who studies mammalian DNA replication and who is currently administering an undergraduate course titled “Genetics in Society,” said in reality, the Academy’s recommendations offer a comprehensive list of strict conditions that must be met before we begin considering embryo gene editing an appropriate treatment option.

“The Academy is cautiously endorsing potential future uses of this technology, but only after exhaustive research has met the risk/benefit standard for authorizing the preliminary clinical trials,” Gilbert said. “The report also underscores the need for reliable oversight to make certain that the technique is used only in extremely limited cases. They stress that their criteria need to be carefully considered to ensure that it is possible that their rigid standards can be met at all.”

Controlled and responsible research on human embryos can yield important insights into critical problems in health and fertility. Methods for safer and more efficient in vitro fertilization, a clearer notion of the process of early human development and a better understanding of how placentas are formed are all possible benefits from a constructively engaged approach to embryonic research.

In the recent report, the NAS offered its professional approval for this class of research. They are embracing attitudes held by countries around the world who see this kind of scientific investigation as vital in understanding the earliest stages of human life.

Gilbert said that it’s important to acknowledge that these recommendations don’t signal an imminent or ethically reckless acceleration of research. There are a number of federally imposed laws that set strict guidelines on how human embryos can be handled and researched.

“This is the National Academy of Sciences making recommendations. The NAS doesn’t have power to overturn federal statutes that already exist,” Gilbert said. “For example, we have the Dickey-Wicker Amendment that prevents federal funds from being used for any research that involves the destruction of a human embryo. This means that the largest source, by far, of funding for this kind of research is taken out of the picture. As a result, the scope and speed of this research in the U.S. is dramatically reduced.”

While the NAS recommendations don’t necessarily indicate sweeping changes in policy, many people see these shifting attitudes as the beginning of a morally compromising slippery slope, and Gilbert is sensitive to this widespread ethical concern.

However, Gilbert said that with the brisk pace of international research that shows no sign of abating, it’s imperative that U.S. scientists participate.

“My take on this is that technology moves forward, and you’re not going to stop it,” Gilbert said. “If we came out and made this kind of research illegal, then we would be left behind by Sweden, China and the U.K. not only technologically, but in our ethical understandings. Yes, I’m concerned, but the best way to deal with that concern is to stay involved and make sure you have a thorough understanding of the details.”

The contentious reception of the NAS report might dismay scientists who would like to see this research move forward in large and substantial ways, but Gilbert said that the scientific community should be heartened by these broad public discussions.

Scientific progress, especially when it comes to ethically fraught subjects like genetically editing a human embryo, must be combined with informed and energized public discourse. Gilbert said that these are exactly the kinds of conversations we need to be having.

“To just say ‘we shouldn’t do this’ and stick our heads in the sand isn’t helping. This stuff is happening and we need to talk about it,” Gilbert said. “Good thinking scientists listen, and everyone is trying to come up with the right balance. There are slippery slopes, but that will always be the case.”