Scientists call for urgent debate on ‘designer babies’ as GM technology advances

© Ho New
Scientific research bodies in the UK are calling for an urgent debate on the ethical implications of genetically modifying human embryos to cure diseases and create “designer babies.”

Britain’s leading research funders have declared their support for research into a controversial new tool called genome editing in the hope it will prevent serious diseases such as cancer or HIV.

However, they recognize that such technology has profound implications on humanity and have issued a plea for a wide-ranging ethical debate on the potential pros and cons of such research.

The statement is signed by the Wellcome Trust, the Medical Research Council, the Academy of Medical Sciences, the Association of Medical Research Charities and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

Genome editing allows sections of DNA to be precisely removed or replaced using “molecular scissors,” also known as the CRISPR-Cas9 system.

Research into CRISPR-Cas9 is still in its early phases according to the Wellcome Trust, one of Britain’s leading medical research funders.

The Trust foresees initial experiments will involve removing non-productive cells from a patient and editing them in a lab to correct a harmful mutation before putting them back in the body.

Under UK law, the genetic modification of embryos for clinical uses is only permitted in research laboratories under license from the fertility regulator, the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA).

One of the conditions of this research is that modified embryos must be destroyed after 14 days.

In a statement, Britain’s leading medical research bodies said they supported research into genome editing and any therapies that may come from this.

We believe that genome-editing technologies may hold significant potential for clinical applications in the future, and we would be open to supporting the development of new therapeutic approaches should the evidence from research advance sufficiently to justify their use,” the statement says.

There may be future potential to apply genome editing in a clinical context using human germ cells or embryos, though we understand this is unlikely to be permissible in European jurisdictions at present.

It adds: “This raises important ethical and regulatory questions, which need to be anticipated and explored.”

The ability to modify human embryos is highly controversial because any unintended harmful effects would be passed through the DNA from generation to generation.

It also raises the prospect of so-called “designer babies,” where embryos are genetically modified to have the looks, skills or talents desired by the parents.