WHO issues new recommendations on human genome editing technology

While human genome editing technology has opened the doors for treating rare diseases, there are also risks associated with it

While human genome editing technology has opened the doors for treating rare diseases, there are also risks associated with it. To establish human genome editing as a tool for public health, the World Health Organisation (WHO) on Monday issued recommendations with an emphasis on safety, effectiveness, and ethics.

Potential benefits of human genome editing include faster and more accurate diagnosis, more targeted treatments and prevention of genetic disorders.

Somatic gene therapies, which involve modifying a patient’s DNA to treat or cure a disease, have been successfully used to address HIV, sickle-cell disease and transthyretin amyloidosis.

The technique could also vastly improve treatment for a variety of cancers. However, some risks exist, for example, with germline and heritable human genome editing, which alter the genome of human embryos and could be passed on to subsequent generations, modifying descendants’ traits.

“Human genome editing has the potential to advance our ability to treat and cure disease, but the full impact will only be realised if we deploy it for the benefit of all people, instead of fuelling more health inequity between and within countries,” Director General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said in a statement.

The result of global consultation, which spanned over two years, the reports deliver recommendations on the governance and oversight of human genome editing in nine discrete areas, including human genome editing registries; international research and medical travel; illegal, unregistered, unethical or unsafe research; intellectual property; and education, engagement and empowerment.

The recommendations focus on systems-level improvements needed to build capacity in all countries to ensure that human genome editing is used safely, effectively, and ethically.

The reports also provide a new governance framework that identifies specific tools, institutions and scenarios to illustrate practical challenges in implementing, regulating and overseeing research into the human genome.

“These new reports from WHO’s Expert Advisory Committee represent a leap forward for this area of rapidly emerging science,” WHO’s Chief Scientist, Dr Soumya Swaminathan, said.

“As global research delves deeper into the human genome, we must minimise risks and leverage ways that science can drive better health for everyone, everywhere,” she added.

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