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Top US scientists want guidelines on editing human genomes

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The National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Medicine are figuring out how to handle the process

Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

Last month, in a world-wide first, scientists in China edited the genome of a human embryo. Immediately, the response from the scientific community has been a question: What now?

The National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Medicine said this week that they would launch an initiative to develop guidelines for editing human genomes — a subject that's raised long-simmering, radical ethical issues. While the researchers who edited an embryo last month did so on an embryo that couldn't develop into a live birth, and were only partially successful in the experiment, the questions about the technique's uses remain. Could the process one day be used to edit out diseases, or to determine the traits of a person before birth?

The details of the new initiative are still thin, but this fall, the two academies will hold a summit with scientists, ethicists, and others to discuss the topic, and eventually plan on releasing a consensus view of the technique. But even after that, the debate will likely continue: use of federal funds for research on the topic is banned, and some scientists have already called for a full, outright ban on the practice.