Scientists call for genetic editing time-out

The birth of gene-edited twin girls in China is sparking calls for a moratorium on editing DNA.

New Zealand scientists are among a global group demanding the practice stops.

A Chinese scientist caused worldwide outrage in November when he announced the birth of the world's first gene-edited children, in defiance of the Chinese government's own rules. He Jiankui used technology known as CRISPR-Cas9 to alter the embryonic genes of twin girls born that month, but didn't tell his university what he was doing.

Prof Jiankui said the alterations would make the children less susceptible to HIV.

Peter Dearden from Genomics Aotearoa says ethics is at the heart of the problem.

"The case has avoided dealing with ethics properly, and made some gene edits that don't make a lot of sense from either a scientific, a medical or an ethical point of view."

The moratorium is calling for a five-year time-out.

"Where would you draw the line and say, this is necessary and important to do and where it isn't - and I think that's exactly what this moratorium should be used for."

Prof Dearden says a few things need to be considered before a five-year ban happens however.

"It's really important that we start thinking about what we might use gene editing for, what we might need to use gene editing for, and what the consequences of taking up gene editing might be."

Scientists from seven countries back the call.

A moratorium proposed at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong in November was rejected, scientists saying the research was too important, NPR reported.