CRISPR — Who’s in Charge? (Part II)

September 30, 2016 • Posted in Blog

D. Joy Riley, M.D., M.A.
Executive Director

This is part II of our report. View part Ipart III, or part IV.

The ability to edit genes using CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) has been in the news for more than a year. A committee has been appointed to advise our government regarding the editing of genes, particularly editing the genes of the human embryo.

Who are the members of that committee? What are their views? The Tennessee Center for Bioethics & Culture has been working to gather information for you, our readers.

Here is a brief look at some of the writings and organizational involvement of the committee members. We continue this month with the second set of five members (alphabetically listed):

Barry S. Coller, M.D.
The Rockefeller University

Limited documentation of Dr. Coller’s views available through our research findings.

  • Gene editing: “Barry Coller, vice president for medical affairs and a professor at Rockefeller University, asked (NIH Director Francis) Collins if his opposition to germline editing would mellow if the only changes being made were to correct disease mutations, rather than to introduce new abilities.” (Genetics and Society; scan downward in article to locate relevant section)

John H. Evans, Ph.D.
University of California, San Diego

Limited documentation of Dr. Evans’ views available through our research findings.

  • Author, Contested Reproduction: Genetic Technologies, Religion and Public Debate (University of Chicago Press, 2010)
  • Author, “Polarization in Abortion Attitudes in U.S. Religious Traditions, 1972-1998,” Sociological Forum 17 (2002): 397-422

Rudolf Jaenisch, M.D.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

  • Gene editing:

    In response to the question, “Should we use CRISPR in humans?” (posed by Ushma S. Neill):

    “We can ask the question first, ‘Why should we?’ The argument you hear from those in favor is that you could eradicate a disease gene. I believe this is a weak argument. There is no way to determine at the zygote stage which embryos are normal and which have a mutant disease gene. If you want to correct a mutation, you can’t genotype an embryo at the one-cell stage. Therefore, if you want to correct a dominant mutation such as in Huntington’s disease, 50% of the time, using CRISPR on zygotes will mutate a normal healthy embryo, and this is totally unacceptable in my opinion. Instead, we should use preimplantation diagnosis to test whether a given embryo carries the mutant gene. Some people argue, ‘Well, don’t do it at the zygote stage, but do it later through injectors.’ This also is not a good option, as one would only correct a gene in some cells of the embryo.

    “The only other use of human germ line manipulation is for enhancement – if you want to add a gene, let’s say, for growth. Adding a growth gene to a healthy embryo could generate, for example, taller individuals. But then the question is, should we do that? Is that something society wants to do? And this is not a scientific question. It’s an ethical and moral question which needs to be debated.

    “One opinion is to ban all manipulation of human embryos, period, while others argue to do the research under certain precautions and clearly defined conditions, but impose a moratorium on any application at this point. I believe that banning everything is just not a feasible thing to do. We should not ban research. It is fundamentally different from limiting the application to affect a human being who can’t be asked for its permission because it is manipulated at the embryo stage.”

  • Cloning and Embryonic Stem Cells:

    In a New York Times article by Stephen S. Hall:

    “But Dr. Jaenisch also made a distinction between cloned embryos and the kind of blastocysts formed during normal reproduction, including embryos fertilized in vitro. ‘When you really think about an I.V.F. embryo that rests in a deep freeze, it only has three fates,’ he said. ‘It can be destroyed, it can be implanted into a woman or it can be converted into embryonic stem cells. When you make embryonic stem cells, you do destroy an embryo, and that is an ethical issue. Cloned embryos also have three fates. They can be destroyed, they can be used to make normal embryonic stem cells tailored to the needs of patients, but they cannot make a normal baby. In my opinion, the destruction of a cloned embryo to make embryonic stem cells poses less ethical problems than the destruction of frozen embryos in the I.V.F. clinic.”’

  • Abortion: Signatory, Amici curiae for Plaintiff-Appellee (National Abortion Federation) in National Abortion Federation v. Center for Medical Progress, Biomax Procurement Services LLC, David Daleiden aka Robert Daoud Sarkis, and Troy Newman

Jeffrey Kahn, Ph.D., M.P.H.
Johns Hopkins University

  • Gene editing: “[S]uggested to lawmakers that scientific journals could serve as gatekeepers by not accepting papers related to research on gene editing unless authors provide details of an ethics review of the work.” (Britt E. Erickson, “Editing of human embryo genes raises ethics questions,” Chemical & Engineering News 29 June 2015; Vol 93(26): 20-21)
  • Mitochondrial Replacement, or “3-parent embryos”: “It’s really picking up a healthy population of mitochondria and replacing that for those that are diseased, and a way forward which we think we have crafted which allows a responsible, ethically acceptable way forward, but with great precaution and numerous restrictions.” (PBS Newshour, 3 February 2016)
  • Embryonic Stem Cell Research: “That’s what this research is all about, getting to that kind of understanding, so we could actually use these cells for therapeutic purposes.” (Transcript here)

Ephrat Levy-Lahad, M.D.
Hebrew University of Jerusalem

  • Director of the Medical Genetics Unit at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem
  • Gene editing: Takeaways from Day 2 of the International Summit on Human Gene Editing … One concern if there is a moratorium: “It will only limit the legitimate science.”
  • Embryonic Stem Cells: Member, ISSCR Task Force on the Clinical Translation of Stem Cells
  • Abortion: Tay-Sachs is a “clear indication for abortion”

Action Points

1) We all need to talk with our neighbors over the back fence and exchange our views. Consider contacting your legislator to inform him or her about your opinion regarding human embryo gene editing, or submit an op-ed to your local newspaper about your concerns.

2) The Tennessee Center for Bioethics & Culture on 6 September submitted a comment regarding the NIH proposal for tax-payer funding of human-animal chimera research.

3) Spend some time reflecting on these additional resources:


As of 14 February 2017, the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine released a report that indicates “clinical trials for genome editing of the human germline – adding, removing, or replacing DNA base pairs in gametes or early embryos – could be permitted in the future, but only for serious conditions under stringent oversight.” See the press release here.