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International Conference Co-Organized by Hastings Examines the Ethics of Gene Editing

Following recent advances in gene editing technologies, including the first recorded use of CRISPR/Cas9 in human embryos in the United States, The Hastings Center cosponsored an international conference, “Genome Editing: Biomedical and Ethical Perspectives,” which took place in Belgrade, Serbia from August 20-21. The other sponsors were the Center for the Study of Bioethics in Serbia and the Division of Medical Ethics at the NYU School of Medicine.

Hastings Center scholars gave presentations and moderated sessions. President Mildred Solomon delivered a video address on the importance of discussing the implications of gene modification as tools become more efficient and accessible. “CRISPR/Cas9 and other emerging technologies have greatly enhanced the ease and affordability of genome modification,” she said. “But changing the nature of the human species in permanent, heritable ways, and introducing genetically modified plants and animals on a large scale into the wild . . . these are awesome responsibilities.”

Josephine Johnston, director of research, gave a presentation on the potential for gene editing to generate new responsibilities for parents and prospective parents to use the technologies in hope of benefitting their children. She argued that such responsibilities could be unduly burdensome on parents if it compels them to navigate uncertain genomic information and requires significant out-of-pocket expenses, among other reasons. Johnston is a principal investigator on Hastings Center projects on next-generation prenatal genetic testing and on ethical questions raised by gene editing.

Research scholar Carolyn P. Neuhaus spoke about the need for meaningful public engagement on research proposals to release genetically modified insects into communities to find out whether they can help reduce the spread of insect-borne illnesses such as Zika. She concluded that legal mechanisms in the U.S. fail to seriously engage the public, particularly the community members who would be affected by release of the insects. Neuhaus made recommendations to enhance community involvement. These recommendations were also discussed in an article in Nature that Neuhaus co-authored with Hastings Center Fellow Arthur Caplan.

The conference included a roundtable discussion, moderated by Johnston, with members of bioethics institutions from the U.K., New Zealand, Australia, Serbia, and the U.S. who formed the international scientific committee. The discussion reflected on the broad spectrum of potential applications of gene editing technologies, from agriculture to human enhancement. “There was a strong sense that these technologies transcend national boundaries,” says Johnston, “necessitating an international conversation about risks, benefits, and oversight approaches.”

The Hastings Center’s partnership with the Center for the Study of Bioethics in Belgrade continues its legacy of collaborations in Central and Eastern Europe. In the 1980s, The Hastings Center reached out to colleagues from the region to develop bioethics workshops in Prague; Pecs, Hungary; and Dubrovnik. In 2008, Charles University in Prague awarded Daniel Callahan, cofounder of The Hastings Center, an honorary degree for this work.