Genetically Modified Babies Move A Step Closer To Reality In The UK

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For almost two years, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics has run an independent inquiry on "heritable genome editing", which is when scientists modify eggs, sperm, or embryos that will then develop to become a person. Now, the inquiry gives a tentative green light to such enterprises as long as several conditions are met.

The report, Genome editing and human reproduction: social and ethical issues, sets out to highlight the ethical issues surrounding this potential practice. For them, genome editing in assisted reproduction needs to secure the welfare of the future person. This means it shouldn’t in any way increase disadvantage, discrimination, and division in society. These are the overarching principles.

Even with that in mind, there are more requirements. It has to be clinically safe and the risk for both the individuals and society need to be properly calculated as well as monitored. It will also have to be after a broad and inclusive public debate over the (likely) controversial issue. The report itself suggests that an independent body be formed to promote such a debate.

There is no law in the UK permitting such genetic editing on embryos before being implanted into the womb. Currently, the report is not asking for the law to be changed. It wants to get ahead of the curve and have ideas already in place for if and when things might become legal.

“There is potential for heritable genome editing interventions to be used at some point in the future in assisted human reproduction, as a means for people to secure certain characteristics in their children," chair of the inquiry Professor Karen Yeung, from the University of Birmingham, said in a statement. "Initially, this might involve preventing the inheritance of a specific genetic disorder. However, if the technology develops it has potential to become an alternative strategy available to parents for achieving a wider range of goals."

The report also put in place some immediate limitations if the law were to be changed in the UK: it needs to be strictly regulated, licensed on a case-by-case basis, and introduced in the context of a clinical study, with the ability to monitor for long-term effects. While gene-editing techniques have made leaps in recent years, there are still questions regarding long-term safety. Research published this week in Nature Biotechnology showed how one of these techniques known as CRISPR can damage DNA unrelated to the gene editing.

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