Law CRISPR-clear on cloning, but not gene editing
SA lawmakers must prepare for gene-edited babies, says local expert
The Chinese scientist who two weeks ago claimed to have created the world’s first gene-edited twins would have been jailed or fined had he conducted his research in SA.
University of KwaZulu-Natal bioethics and medical law lecturer Sheetal Soni explained that while genome editing was not mentioned in SA law, the regulations on therapeutic cloning, which do speak to genetic manipulation, create a punishable offence.
“The penalty prescribed for violating the regulations is a fine, imprisonment of 10 years or both. But SA still needs comprehensive legal guidelines regarding genome-editing technologies specifically,” she said.
Soni was at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong two weeks ago when news began to circulate that gene-edited twin girls had been born in China.
The children’s DNA had apparently been manipulated using gene-editing technology called CRISPR-Cas9.
“It is a biological tool that allows scientists to make changes to an organism’s DNA to achieve a specific result, very much in the same way the word-processing programmes have an option to search for certain words in a document and replace them with other words,” Soni explained.
Chinese scientist He Jiankui told the summit that twin girls had been born with DNA alterations to make one of them resistant to HIV.
“Dr He’s research was met with mixed feelings internationally and outcry from the scientific community. He was questioned heavily on the need for the secrecy of his research, the information which he gave to the participants, and his plans for the future of these children,” Soni said.
He’s research falls short of the law and guidelines of several countries and international bodies, which either prohibit the implantation of gene-edited embryos in human or ban it by through regulation.
However, unlike China, SA does issue penalties for violating the ban.
Whether it was rogue science or a massive publicity stunt, lawmakers must prepare for gene-edited babies, Soni suggested.
“We have entered a new age overnight, and what happens in the coming days and weeks will determine the way forward. This incident will serve to spur policymakers into action into developing comprehensive guidelines to oversee the application of gene-editing technologies to human beings.”
Soni said the ban on the use of CRISPR-Cas9 in humans was not being debated, but rather the regulation of it.
The Academy of Science of SA released a study this week aimed at addressing the ethical, social and legal implications of human genetics and genomics in SA.
Some of the key features of the report include the focus on informed consent, open debate with stakeholders and policymakers and the establishment of a genetics advisory board.
“Now more than ever, comprehensive legal provisions regarding genome editing are needed,” Soni said.