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Japanese gov't considering legally restricting genome editing technology

A panel of experts for the Environment Ministry discuss regulations on genome-edited creatures, in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on Aug. 20, 2018. (Mainichi/Norikazu Chiba)

TOKYO -- The government is considering legally restricting genome editing technology to prevent people from altering genes in fertilized human eggs and returning them to the womb, those linked to the government said.

The government earlier intended to regulate clinical application of the technology through the stiffening of guidelines on genome editing research. However, officials were alarmed by the news that a Chinese researcher used a fertilized egg with altered genes to produce twins in autumn last year. The government judged that if similar cases occurred in Japan, it would raise major safety and ethical concerns, which could delay research and development of such technology.

Officials therefore deemed it necessary to legally ban such clinical application of the technology with penalties for offenders, rather than simply stiffening relevant guidelines.

Altering genes in fertilized human eggs could affect future generations. While such technology may be able to prevent genetic illnesses, there are fears that it could lead to the production of designer babies. Many major countries legally restrict clinical application of such technology.

Japan has no legislation explicitly banning the altering of genes in fertilized human eggs. Central government guidelines that were enforced this month permit basic research on using genome editing technology for fertilized eggs exclusively for the purpose of helping to treat infertility.

Separate guidelines ban clinical research on the transplantation of fertilized eggs to the womb after their genes have been altered. However, critics have pointed out that the guidelines have loopholes, as they do not stipulate any penalties and they do not apply to research conducted for medical purposes.

Basic principles for dealing with fertilized human eggs, which were formulated in 2004, have been reviewed by the working group of a government panel of experts on life ethics. The government is poised to shortly draft a proposal pointing to the need for legal restrictions banning the return of fertilized eggs to the womb after their genes have been altered.

The Science Council of Japan proposed in 2017 that the government should consider legal restrictions on such technology. However, the government expressed reluctance to do so at the time on the grounds that regulations could prevent Japan from quickly responding to technological developments and that excessive restrictions could delay research and development.

Now, however, some experts have underscored the need to develop comprehensive legislation regulating research activities, including lab research, and so the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry and the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry will discuss specific measures.

During Diet deliberations after the birth of genetically edited babies in China, Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Takumi Nemoto had insisted that use of such technology should be regulated through guidelines rather than legislation.

(Japanese original by Norikazu Chiba, Science & Environment News Department)

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