Doctors, lawyers, ethicists and academics convened at Weill Cornell Medicine – Qatar (WCM-Q) to discuss the legal and ethical implications of new gene editing technologies that allow for the creation of ‘genetically enhanced humans’.
The event, the latest in WCM-Q’s Intersection of Law & Medicine series, featured lectures and panel discussions of pressing issues prompted by the recent development of technologies such as CRISPR, a powerful gene editing tool that a scientist in China claims to have already used to produce twin baby girls with modified genes that make them resistant to HIV.
Co-ordinated by WCM-Q’s Division of Continuing Professional Development in collaboration with Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU), the event heard lectures from practising physicians, lawyers, legal academics, researchers and ethicists.
Dr Barry Solaiman, assistant professor at HBKU College of Law and Public Policy, and co-director of the activity, explained the existing legal framework governing genetics research in Qatar and discussed the challenges involved in developing regulations to take account of developments in gene editing technologies.
Dr Sunanda Holmes, general counsel and chief compliance officer at The American University in Cairo, spoke about the global legal frameworks governing gene editing and genetic medicine in general, with specific reference to the US, the UK and Canada.
WCM-Q’s Dr Jeremie Arash Rafii Tabrizi, professor of Genetic Medicine in Obstetrics and Gynaecology, spoke about the possible uses for genetic technologies like CRISPR, such as introducing genetically modified mosquitoes to combat the spread of malaria, and genetic therapies for breast cancer caused by mutations in two genes known as BRCA1 and BRCA2.
Dr Tabrizi said, “If you have a BRCA mutation, you have a very high risk of cancer, so we do a mastectomy. What’s going to happen within the next few years, I think - and we are working on this in our labs - is to design a personalised CRISPR to correct this mutation with a few cycles of injections in the breast, rather than a mastectomy.”
Dr Tabrizi warned that regulation of gene editing poses many problems, explaining that so-called biohackers are already selling DIY CRISPR kits online. Regulation of genetically modified plants and animals is also problematic, because once introduced into the wider environment they are difficult or even impossible to control, he said.
HBKU College of Law dean Susan L Karamanian, who attended the conference, said, “HBKU Law was delighted to work with our Education City neighbour, WCM-Q, to address a complex topic that involves novel legal issues. The conference brought together leading thinkers in law, Islamic studies, ethics, medicine and scientific research to help identify the legal gaps and pave a way forward.”
Dr Jeffrey Skopek, lecturer in Medical Law, Ethics and Policy at the University of Cambridge, gave a lecture titled ‘The Harms of Human Genetic Enhancement: Secular Perspective’, after which Dr Mohamed Ghaly, professor of Islam and Biomedical Ethics at the HBKU Research Centre for Islamic Legislation & Ethics, spoke about Islamic ethical perspectives on human gene editing.
Dr Thurayya Arayssi, senior associate dean for Medical Education and Continuing Professional Development, who co-directed the event with Dr Solaiman, said, “Gene editing is one of the most exciting areas of medical research with huge potential for treating many different diseases, as well as many other possible applications.”
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