Rogan: Premature, irresponsible to make changes

I am responding to the commentary by Professors Hill and Suarez, which centered on the implications of applying CRISPR/Cas9 technology to modify the human genome (“Looking for a curator of the human species,” Western News, Feb. 25).

First of all, it needs to be understood the controversy is limited to modification of the germline, i.e. ova, sperm or early embryo. I doubt application of this technology to ‘cure’ or mitigate the effects of a later onset disease such as cancer, would provoke much of an outcry.

Second, a research group in China actually attempted to modify and failed to fertilize (supposedly inviable) human embryos and published the results last year, well before approval was granted by the regulator in the United Kingdom. That was the signal event that led to the Dec. 13 meeting in Washington, D.C.

Finally, I wholeheartedly agree curators will need to be consulted both before any human genome is modified, or to monitor the consequences of modification afterwards. I suspect research ethics boards in North America won’t let it go that far, however, without legislation, there is nothing preventing a commercial entity from engaging in these activities.

Curation will be an extraordinarily daunting responsibility for whomever assumes this role.

For one thing, manipulations will have to be strictly limited to the small fraction of the genome we understand well, namely correction of known disease-causing gene variants. Aside from the fact we do not yet understand the functions of a significant number of human genes, the interpretation of gene variants of uncertain significance, which substantially outnumber the variants we do understand, is still fraught with uncertainty. Curators will be asked to weigh in on modifications to human genomes with extremely incomplete information about what the effects of such changes might portend.

For these reasons, in my opinion, it is premature, even irresponsible, to make changes to the germline that might be transmitted to future offspring, which might be detrimental to families or even the species.

Peter K. Rogan
​Canada Research Chair in Genome Bioinformatics, Tier I​
Professor of Biochemistry, Oncology & Computer Science