Press Release 05/2016

Annual meeting of German Ethics Council on genome editing attracts strong public interest

More than 500 people attended the German Ethics Council’s annual meeting on 22 June on the topic: "Access to the human genome: New possibilities and their ethical evaluation."

Thanks to new "genome surgery" procedures such as CRISPR-Cas9 technology, the targeted modification of the human genome is within reach. Questions that are already known from debates on the ethics of gene therapy via virus transfer are now being asked again: Should interventions in the germ line of a human embryo continue to be banned, should they be permitted, or are they even imperative? What responsibility do we have towards future generations? Should we be worried that the relative ease of the new procedures will result in their uncritical application?

In his opening remarks, Peter Dabrock, Chair of the German Ethics Council, set high standards: "Undifferentiated objection is, per se, no more the task of ethical reflection than the moral consecration of procedures after they have long been established." According to Dabrock, it should rather be the question to consider "what we as a society wish to accept, or not accept, when it comes to CRISPR-Cas9 & Co."

In his introductory presentation, Jörg Vogel from the University of Würzburg critically examined genome editing. He said that while the new methods doubtless offer enormous innovative potential for basic research, as well as for plant breeding, biotechnology and treatments of genetic diseases, these need to be weighed against the far-reaching social, legal and ethical questions that society must consider if it is to act responsibly.

Karl Welte of the University of Tübingen considered the medical potential of the technology in his presentation. Whilst he declared the interventions in the genome made possible by these new methods to be surprisingly simple and saw scope for the treatment of genetic diseases to benefit, Welte also voiced considerable concerns that speak against performing procedures on the germ line. He argued that as long as it is not clear what unforeseen effects editing the genetic material in the human germ line might have, the medical profession should continue to use alternatives such as pre-implantation diagnostics and stem cell transplants.

Jochen Taupitz from the University of Mannheim gave a presentation on the current legal situation. He stated that even though the German Embryo Protection Act bans artificial changes of the human germ line, it contains many loopholes and grey areas. The legal reasoning to make germ line intervention punishable due to the associated risk for people born afterward, might in future no longer apply if such intervention can be carried out at acceptably safe levels, Taupitz said.

With a view to ethical questions surrounding "genome surgery" Wolfgang Huber of the Humboldt University in Berlin argued that "the field should not be left either to the prophets of salvation or to the prophets of doom, but to regard human innovation as a means for responsible development." He identified different ethical challenges for somatic gene therapy and germ line intervention, adding that, in its current state, the latter should be rejected because the associated risks are unknown and therefore cannot be weighed against the benefits. He added that there is also a need to clearly differentiate conceivable therapies from ethically more problematic genetic improvements. Huber emphasized the sacrosanctity of human identity, which makes it unacceptable to design, construct and produce human life according to someone else's blueprint.

The societal controversy about "genome surgery" was reflected in the four debates in the afternoon. At the centre of the discussion, in which the audience participated intensively, were several questions: Should "genome surgery" on human embryos be banned, permitted, or is it even imperative? What responsibilities do we have towards future generations? Does the safeguarding of what is "natural" set the boundaries for genome editing? Does the relative ease of the new procedures lend itself to the uncritical application of the technology? The divergence of opinions aside, all of the discussion rounds reached consensus on the need to remain aware of further research in the field of genome surgery and to continue a broad social discourse. There was also agreement that a clinical application of the technology on human embryos should not be allowed as long as the methods have not been deemed acceptably safe.

The conference programme as well as audio and video excerpts from the presentations and contributions to the discussion are available at (in German).