The Asahi Shimbun／2017/4/21 14:10
Government should take lead in guidelines on genome editing
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at a recent news conference that he believes the government should play a responsible role in scientific research for applying genome editing technologies to fertilized human eggs.
Genome editing refers to the practice of modifying genes to achieve a desired result.
Against the backdrop of Suga's remark is a standoff that broke out between relevant scientific societies and the government.
The scientific associations were angered over the government’s reluctance to participate in the screening of research proposals for their acceptability and other aspects. However, the government insisted it can only do so in the capacity of a “cooperator.”
The societies decided late last week to dissolve a committee responsible for such screenings, saying that the government’s stance on the issue has hurt mutual trust.
The current state without governing rules should not be allowed to continue. The government should change its present attitude fundamentally in line with Suga’s remark.
The government’s Expert Panel on Bioethics worked out a report in April last year, saying that genome editing in a fertilized egg may be approved only if it is part of basic research that does not involve returning the egg to a uterus. Screening guidelines were left to be developed.
But the Cabinet Office, the science ministry and the health ministry decided to forgo the task, citing difficulties in working out guidelines within a short time frame, and instead opted for asking relevant scientific societies to conduct screenings.
It must be said that, in so doing, the government underestimated the gravity of the subject and lacked the understanding that the problem is its own.
A global competition is being waged over genome editing in fertilized eggs, which has the potential for breaking new ground in therapies for hereditary diseases and other illnesses. There are concerns, in the meantime, over the technologies’ safety and its unknown impact on posterity, which was the reason why the expert panel refused to give the green light to clinical applications.
Japan’s scientists, who are full of motivation and ideas, would be unable to exert their full powers unless an appropriate research environment was quickly developed. Some, on the contrary, could attempt to steal a march on others in pushing research without sufficient safety and ethicality checks.
The scientific societies are rightly arguing for a need to ensure that scientists who are not members of those societies will also adhere to the rules. The government should take it upon itself to develop guidelines without leaving the task to others.
There is a legally provided rule on the clinical application of induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, which also have the potential for changing the future of medical care. Under the rule, a proposal for clinical research is initially screened for safety and ethical problems by a committee set up by a hospital or research institution concerned and is sent to the health ministry for final approval.
As things stand now, Japan has been dealing with the advent of every new technology, in such fields as gene therapy and cloning, by developing guidelines and laws on a case-by-case basis. But that approach has its limits.
There should be more discussions on developing laws and an organizational structure that could comprehensively control all scientific studies that have bioethical implications.
--The Asahi Shimbun, April 21