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UK public in favour of genome editing human embryos for disease

12 March 2018
Appeared in BioNews 941

British people are largely in favour of using genome editing to prevent inheritance of genetic disorders, according to a survey by the Royal Society.

The development of improved methods for editing DNA mean a wider range of applications are now available to treat and cure serious diseases. The public's views on whether these technologies should be used in a clinical setting have, until now, been largely unknown.  

The survey of 2000 people, chosen to be representative of the UK population, found that 76 percent were in favour of correcting genetic diseases in human embryos, even though the modifications would be inherited by future generations. This is greater than the proportion who were in favour of correcting genetic diseases in a way that meant the modified gene would not be inherited (71 percent).

'That's a very dramatic result,' said Professor Robin Lovell-Badge of the Francis Crick Institute in London, and chair of the Royal Society's genetic technologies programme.

The genomes of human embryos cannot currently be edited to treat diseases in the UK, but laws on the use of genetic technologies may be updated as the UK leaves the EU. 'It might give us some opportunities to go a different way to other countries in Europe where the applications of these technologies to plants and animals and humans has been very restricted,' said Professor Lovell-Badge.

More broadly, the survey showed widespread approval for genome editing to cure life-threatening diseases which are currently incurable, such as muscular dystrophy (83 percent in favour), and curable life-threatening diseases like leukaemia (82 percent). A majority (73 percent) were also in favour of using genome editing to treat a non-life-threatening diseases, such as arthritis.  

'With developments in science making genetic technologies faster, easier to use and more affordable, now is the time to discuss how we use these new genetic tools, if we should use them and where we want them to take us,' said Professor Lovell-Badge. 

'Working out what we as a society find ethically acceptable requires open and inclusive debate involving many voices – and any decisions as to their use should not be left to scientists and clinicians alone, but involve all sectors of society.'

Aside from applications to cure and prevent disease, the survey found little enthusiasm for non-clinical modifications: a minority of 31 percent supported genome editing in humans for cosmetic reasons, and 40 percent thought it should be used to enhance abilities such as intelligence.

'Simply making carrots look pretty, or animals look pretty, they didn't really [get] support,' Professor Lovell-Badge said. 'There has to be a sensible reason for the public to think this is an appropriate use of the technology.'

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