Amid Gene Editing Worry, A Return To Biotech’s 1st “Asilomar Moment”


Biotechnology leaders—and the rest of us—should “count to 10” as they read the March 19 call in Science to consider limits on using revolutionary new gene-editing techniques for germline gene therapy. The techniques are powerful and simple to use and key scientists, worried about misuse, want us to pause, confer, and set limits. But we must also recall the risks on the other side: turmoil and distrust of science.

As the writer of the first newspaper story about recombinant DNA gene-transfer back in 1974, and one who covered the famous international conference at Asilomar in February 1975 (both for The New York Times), I think we should remember how life sciences passed through several very parlous years four decades ago, where major potential human benefits walked a knife edge between outright bans and an evolving set of rules that allowed an industry to struggle and grow.

Public discussion of such issues is required in a democratic society, but we must ensure a rational discussion in today’s even more contentious public forums.

Last week’s letter to Science by leading biologists, urging discussion of regulating so-called CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technology, creates a new “Asilomar Moment.” Appealing to the community of researchers in the field, the authors are following a pattern set in biotechnology and life sciences 40 years ago.

The manifesto focused on the new opportunities for altering genes so that the changes can be passed on to future generations. It was entitled, “A prudent path forward for genomic engineering and germline gene modification.” Its 18 signers asserted, “A framework for open discourse on the use of CRISPR-Cas9 technology to manipulate the human genome is urgently needed.”

They wrote of “unparalleled potential for modifying human and nonhuman genomes,” to cure genetic diseases in humans and to “reshape the biosphere.” They warned of consequent “unknown risks to human health and well-being.”

As in 1974, when gene-splicing or gene-transfer techniques sped from lab to lab, the authors noted that the new “gene editing” techniques that emerged in 2012 are spreading widely. The trends led them to meet in Napa, California, in January to hammer out their case, just as their predecessors did in David Baltimore’s office at MIT on April 17, 1974.

A Nobel Prize winner in 1975 for his work with retroviruses, Baltimore is the former president of Rockefeller University, California Institute of Technology, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He was also lead author of last week’s Science letter. Among the signers were Harvard University’s George Church and Jennifer Doudna of the University of California at Berkeley. Both are pioneers in developing CRISPR-Cas9 for use in human disease therapy.

Baltimore and another signer, Nobel Prize winner Paul Berg of Stanford, were principal organizers of the February 1975 world conference at Asilomar in Pacific Grove, California, that considered management of risks from the then-new techniques of recombinant DNA.

The gene-transfer techniques were pulled together by Herbert Boyer of UCSF and Stanley Cohen of Stanford. Their methods were reported to nucleic acid researchers at a Gordon conference in New Hampshire in June 1973. Concerned about risks, attendees voted to send a letter to Science and to ask the National Academy of Sciences for a study. Berg headed the resultant committee that met in Baltimore’s office in April 1974. Recommending a moratorium on three types of experiments until the Asilomar conference could consider the matter, the committee’s letter was made public July 18, 1974.

The beach at Asilomar, CA.

Asilomar Beach, CA.

I learned of Boyer and Cohen’s work in April 1974. It was published in May 1974, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. That was when my Times story appeared on the front page of the national edition. Niels Reimers, Stanford’s director of technology licensing, told me later that this spurred him to talk to Cohen about what became the famous Boyer-Cohen patent.

I recall the Asilomar conference amid the pines on the Pacific shore as an incredibly tense week, while young scientists whose careers were in the balance … Next Page »

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Xconomist and science reporter Victor McElheny of MIT is author of Watson and DNA: Making a Scientific Revolution (2003) and Drawing the Map of Life: Inside the Human Genome Project (2010) Follow @

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