International experts agree genetic modification is ‘essential’

International experts agree genetic modification is ‘essential’

In light of recent breakthroughs, an international panel of experts met to discuss the ethics of editing genetic code

A group of prominent scientists and policy experts have released a report today saying unequivocally that genetic modification of human embryos should be allowed.

The Hinxton Group is a worldwide organization comprised of scientists as a well as ethical experts and policy makers. After meeting in Manchester for nearly a month to discuss recent scientific breakthroughs in gene therapy, the group concluded that such editing of early stage embryos would have ‘tremendous value’.

The group offered a small caveat by arguing that at the present moment, the technology to successfully modify an embryo’s genetic code is not fully developed. However, in the future, it will be ‘morally acceptable’ to manipulate the genes of unborn children.

“The prospect that genome editing may one day be used to create genetically modified humans should not in itself be cause for concern, particularly where what is at stake is curing or preventing serious disease,” said Sarah Chan, a leading member of the Hinxton Group and an academic at the University of Edinburgh.

“At the same time, more research is needed, together with robust public discussion, before genome editing could proceed to reproductive clinical applications.”

The convening of the Hinxton Group was in a large way due to the success of ‘molecular sat-nav’ techniques that can essentially cut and paste bits of DNA. The process could have a broad range of effects such as fighting tumors or combating diseases related to ageing such as Alzheimer’s.

Yet most of the debate focuses on the morality of genetically modifying babies. Once a science fiction fantasy, the prospect is fast becoming a reality.

The United States refuses to fund any research that involves genetic modification of embryos. It is China that is leading the way in this field of scientific discovery. A team at Sun Yat-sen University has successfully corrected the DNA errors that lead to a blood disorder in early stage embryos.

The technology has life saving possibilities yet researchers must proceed cautiously to avoid the creating ‘designer babies’. Moreover, altering the germline- that is the hereditary traits – could have unforeseen consequences in generations to come.

The statement issued by the Hinxton Group and signed by all 22 of its members read:

“We believe that while this technology has tremendous value to basic research and enormous potential for somatic clinical uses, it is not sufficiently developed to consider human genome editing for clinical reproductive purposes at this time.

“Given all safety, efficacy and governance needs are met, there may be morally acceptable uses of this technology in human reproduction, though further substantial discussion and debate will be required.”