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Health Team

WHO panel to address complex issues around gene editing

Posted December 4, 2018 7:38 a.m. EST

— The World Health Organization is creating a working group to study gene editing and the complex ethical, social and safety issues the procedure raises.

The panel will help develop "agreed norms and standards for the governance of human gene editing," the organization told CNN.

The announcement comes one week after a Chinese scientist claimed to have created the world's first gene-edited babies.

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO's director-general, discussed the challenges gene editing technologies bring and the creation of an expert panel during a press conference Monday, where he warned of the potential for "unintended consequences."

"This is uncharted water and it has to be taken seriously," the WHO official told a news briefing in Geneva, Switzerland, according to Reuters. Gene editing was one of many issues discussed at the news conference.

"WHO is putting together experts. We will work with member states to do everything we can to make sure of all issues -- be it ethical, social, safety -- before any manipulation is done."

On November 26, Chinese scientist He Jiankui claimed that twin girls had been born with DNA altered to make them resistant to HIV, a groundbreaking move that is likely to spark significant ethical questions around gene editing and so-called designer babies.

Two days later, while speaking at a summit in Hong Kong, he raised the possibility of a third child being born after announcing that a separate woman was pregnant at an early stage with a modified embryo.

The Chinese government ordered an "immediate investigation" and on Thursday suspended the research activities of scientists involved in the research.

The world's leading geneticists also called for an independent inquiry into He.

WHO acknowledged that "human genome editing techniques hold great potential to understand the causes of disease and benefit human health" but warned the technique brings many issues in need of addressing.

"The use of these technologies must be regulated through ethics oversight and human rights standards," it said.

"WHO is committed to working with member states and the wider global health and research community to establish the mechanisms and dialogue needed to effectively govern these technologies."