Designer babies are on the horizon after an influential group of scientists concluded that it could be ‘morally permissible’ to genetically engineer human embryos.
In a new report which opens the door to a change in the law, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, said that DNA editing could become an option for parents wanting to ‘influence the genetic characteristics of their child.’
Although it would be largely used to cure devastating genetic illnesses, or predispositions to cancers and dementia, the experts said they were not ruling out cosmetic uses such as making tweaks to increase height or changing eye or hair colour, if it would make a child more successful.
In the past the council has given the green light to controversial procedures, such as three-parent babies in which the DNA of a ‘second mother’ is used to replace faulty code in a cell’s batteries.
Following a widespread consultation and vote in Parliament, the law was changed to allow the procedure and the first babies with the DNA of three people are expected to be born later this year, or early in 2019.
Genetic editing could be used to rewrite the DNA of babies before they are born
Currently scientists are only allowed to genetically edit human embryos for 14 days for research purposes, after which they must be destroyed, and it is illegal to implant them into a womb.
But the Nuffield Council said it could become legal if safeguards were met.
Professor Karen Yeung, chair of the working party on genome editing and human reproduction: “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.
“Whilst there is still uncertainty over the sorts of things genome editing might be able to achieve, or how widely its use might spread, we have concluded that the potential use of genome editing to influence the characteristics of future generations is not unacceptable in itself.”
Asked whether genetic editing could be used to make children tall, with blond hair and blue eyes, if that was found to increase their chance of success in life, Prof Yeung added: “We’re not ruling that out.”
The Nuffield Council said that all genetic editing of embryos should be strictly regulated by the Human Fertility and Embryology Authority (HFEA) and only licensed on a case-by-case basis, with individuals monitored for long-term side-effects.
They also called for further research into genetic editing techniques such as Crispr, which acts like molecular scissors to snip away bad DNA and replace it with healthy code. The first trials to cure adults of devastating diseases like HIV, cancer and sickle cell disease, are due to get going in Europe and the US this year.
But Dr David King, Director of Human Genetics Alert said it would lead to a two-tier system where people who could not afford genetic editing would be disadvantaged.
“This is an absolute disgrace,” he said. “We have had international bans on eugenic genetic engineering for 30 years.
“The people of Britain decided 15 years ago that they don’t want GM food. Do you suppose they want GM babies?”
“This is neoliberal bioethics that puts individual whims ahead of society needs for basic human equality and commonality.
“Although I don’t usually use the term ‘Frankenstein science’, there is another out-of-control monster here – the scientist-dominated bioethics approval machinery that never says a clear no to anything, that insists that if we can do it, we must.”
A separate study released last night by the Wellcome Sanger Institute also warned that Crispr is far more dangerous than previously thought.
New research, published in Nature Biotechnology, found the technique caused extensive mutations in the DNA away from the intended site. The scientists warned that it may lead to important genes being switched on or off, which may cause devastating conditions.
Prof Allan Bradley, corresponding author on the study from the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said: “We found that changes in the DNA have been seriously underestimated before now.
“It is important that anyone thinking of using this technology for gene therapy proceeds with caution, and looks very carefully to check for possible harmful effects.”
Commenting on the findings Dr Francesca Forzano, Consultant in Clinical Genetics and Genomics, Guy’s & St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust, said: “This important work demonstrate that this technique is much less safe than previously thought.
“This work represents a milestone in the gene editing field and signpost that more caution shall be exerted in the application of this technique.”
However Prof Robin Lovell-Badge FMedSci FRS, Group Leader, The Francis Crick Institute, said: “The results give no reason to panic or to lose faith in the methods when they are carried out by those who know what they are doing.”
Via The Telegraph