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Human genome editing – progress, promise, and challenges

- Wits University

The 3rd International Summit on Human Genome Editing took place in the UK in March. Wits Professor of Genetics Michèle Ramsay was on the organising committee.

Remarkable progress has been made in somatic human genome editing, demonstrating it can cure once incurable diseases.

Somatic human genome editing refers to the editing of somatic [non-reproductive] cells, and changes made in these cells affect only the person who receives the genome editing.

To realise its full therapeutic potential, research is needed to expand the range of diseases it can treat, and to better understand risks and unintended effects.

The extremely high costs of current somatic gene therapies are unsustainable. A global commitment to affordable, equitable access to these treatments is urgently needed.

Heritable human genome editing remains unacceptable at this time. Public discussions and policy debates continue and are important for resolving whether this technology should be used.

Heritable human genome editing refers to the editing of human embryos or gametes to be used for human reproduction.

Governance frameworks and ethical principles for the responsible use of heritable human genome editing are not in place. Necessary safety and efficacy standards have not been met.

These are some of the key take-outs from the statement from the organising committee of the 3rd International Summit on Human Genome Editing that took place in London, UK, from 6-8 March 2023.

Michèle Ramsay, Director the Sydney Brenner Institute for Molecular Bioscience (SBIMB), Professor in Human Genetics, and the SARChI Chair in Genomics and Bioinformatics of African Populations at Wits University, is a member of the Organising Committee that contributed to the statement.

Prof. Michèle Ramsay is a commissioner on the international report on Heritable Human Genome Editing released in the UK on 3 September 2020

Convened by the UK Royal Society, UK Academy of Medical Sciences, US National Academies of Sciences and Medicine, and The World Academy of Sciences, the Summit on Human Genome Editing was held to discuss progress, promise, and challenges in research, regulation, and equitable development of human genome editing technologies and therapies.

"I was invited to be a member of the organising committee and worked with an extraordinary group of scientists, ethicists, and legal experts, over a period of about two years, to develop the programme for the meeting," says Ramsay. "I also chaired the session on governance on the second day of the meeting, focusing on Regulation and Policy Approaches to Increase Accessibility for Somatic Editing."

Ramsay is also President of the International Federation of Human Genetics Societies, which co-hosted the 14th International Congress of Human Genetics, which was held for the first time on the African continent, in Cape Town, from 22 to 26 February 2023. This conference was themed "Coming Home".

The "out of Africa" theory is based on genetic evidence that suggests that anatomically modern humans (our species – homo sapiens) originated and evolved in Africa around 300,000 years ago and then migrated throughout the world. The February conference theme was an acknowledgement that now it is time to "come home" to Africa.