Japan plans to create a law to restrict gene editing of fertilized human eggs to basic research and ban such eggs from being returned to the uterus, sources close to the matter said Friday.
Deeming that penalties are necessary to prevent abuse of the controversial procedure, the Cabinet Office is expected to propose the legislation at a bioethics panel’s meeting on April 22. The science and health ministries will discuss the specifics before making a decision in the fall, the sources said.
The move comes after a Chinese researcher announced in January that a twin had been born with edited genomes, igniting international debate over the ethics of the procedure and calls within Japan for a law restricting use of such technology.
Japan had sought to tighten control of the procedure with an ethics guideline introduced on April 1 that allows gene editing of fertilized human eggs for medical purposes but bans their return to the uterus. No penalties for violators are included in the guideline.
The Science Council of Japan proposed creating such a law in 2017, but the government had been reluctant to do so, fearing that restricting the move with a law — which takes time to revise — could make it difficult for the nation to cope with advancements in technology.
But it decided an additional measure was necessary given that the incident in China took place even though the country had its own guidelines.
While gene editing has stirred hopes that it will help people overcome genetic disorders, it is also feared it may pave the way to the creation of “designer babies,” with people selecting or altering the gene makeup of their babies to match their preference, which could also affect later generations in the family.
After CRISPR-Cas9, a method for easily cutting, replacing and inserting genes, was developed in 2012, gene editing became widely used in the agricultural and medical sectors, although its application to fertilized human eggs remains controversial and is banned in many countries outside of basic research.
Germany and France ban gene-editing research that could lead to the birth of a child, while the United States bans government funding for such studies on fertilized eggs.