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Heritable genome editing could be acceptable, says leading ethics body

17 July 2018
Appeared in BioNews 959

In a new report, the UK's Nuffield Council on Bioethics has concluded that the use of heritable genome editing 'could be ethically acceptable in some circumstances'.

The report, entitled 'Genome Editing and Human Reproduction: Social and Ethical Issues', represents the output of two years' work by an eight-member working party which included scientific, legal and ethical experts from across the UK.

Professor Karen Yeung, chair of the working party, said: 'The potential use of genome editing to influence characteristics of future generations is not unacceptable in itself. However, possibilities it raises could have significant impacts on individuals, families and on society.'

Heritable genome editing involves making targeted changes to the genome of embryo, sperm or egg cells, resulting in alterations which can be transmitted stably through generations. This technology may represent an important route forward for the treatment of genetic disorders.

In the UK, editing the genomes of embryos or germ cells is permitted for research. However, it is currently against the law to establish a pregnancy using embryos or germ cells that have been altered in this way, or to keep a human embryo (genome edited or otherwise) alive in the laboratory for longer than 14 days.

The report concludes that two principles are key to the ethical acceptability of heritable genome editing: securing the 'welfare of the future person' who inherits edited DNA, and seeking to ensure that genome editing does not 'increase disadvantage, discrimination or division in society'.

Three further conditions are stipulated in the report: 'broad and inclusive' public debate about the use and implications of the technology, establishing clinical safety, and ensuring that adverse consequences for all levels of society are suitably assessed, monitored and mitigated.

Professor Fiona Watt, executive chair of the Medical Research Council, who was not involved in writing the report, said: 'We strongly support the report's call for a public dialogue on this issue, as well as further research into the ethical and social impacts, to ensure this technology continues to be used only in an ethical and legally rigorous way.'

Sarah Norcross, Director of the Progress Educational Trust (the charity that publishes BioNews), said: 'We welcome this report's conclusion that the clinical use of genome editing to make heritable changes may be ethically acceptable, if certain stipulations are met. We also agree with the report's call for thoroughgoing public debate about this technology, and with its identification of the HFEA as the best placed competent national body to regulate the future use of genome editing in assisted conception.'


Scientific, legal and ethical aspects of genome editing will be debated at the Progress Educational Trust's Annual Conference 'Make Do or Amend: Should We Update UK Fertility and Embryo Law?', in London on Wednesday 5 December 2018.

There is an early bird discount if you book for this conference before 14 September. See here for details.

SOURCES & REFERENCES
Genome Editing and Human Reproduction: Social and Ethical Issues
Nuffield Council on Bioethics |  17 July 2018
Heritable genome editing: action needed to secure responsible way forward
Nuffield Council on Bioethics |  17 July 2018
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