The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has revealed an independent inquiry concluded that editing the DNA of a human embryo, sperm, or egg to influence the characteristics of a future person (‘heritable genome editing’) could be morally permissible
But the Council said for this to happen, a number of measures would need to be put in place first to ensure that genome editing proceeds in ways that are ethically acceptable.
The technique of genome editing – the deliberate alteration of a targeted DNA sequence in a living cell – is not currently lawful in the UK, but could, in time, become available as an option for parents.
The council said further research was needed and recommended an independent body should be established in the UK to promote debate on medical developments.
It also said the process, should it become lawful in the UK, be strictly regulated by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority(HFEA) and licensed on case-by-case basis.
Professor Karen Yeung, chair of the working party and Professor of Law, Ethics, and Informatics at the University of Birmingham, said: “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. 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.”
Other reproductive options that are currently available to prospective parents who face the possibility of passing on an inherited genetic disorder, which genome editing might be considered alongside, include pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), which involves testing embryos for genetic characteristics and selecting one/s with preferred characteristics.
Although the UK is one of the countries that permits research on human embryos, the law does not currently permit genome editing interventions on embryos that are to be placed in a womb. The law would therefore have to be changed in order to allow the use of genome editing embryos, sperm or eggs for reproduction.
One of the main reasons heritable genome editing interventions are controversial is that changes may be passed on to future generations.
Professor Dave Archard, Chair of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics said: “Huge advances are happening in genomics research, and while we have to acknowledge that genes alone do not shape a person, the possibility of using genome editing in reproduction to secure or avoid a characteristic in a child offers a radically new approach that is likely to appeal to some prospective parents.
“There may be good reasons for allowing some parental preferences to be met, but we need to be careful that the use of genome editing to help parents to exercise these preferences doesn’t increase social disadvantage, discrimination or division and that close attention is paid to the welfare of those involved, especially any child born as a result.”
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