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Genome-edited babies may be justifiable says bioethicist

25 November 2019
Appeared in BioNews 1025

Genome-edited babies may be ethically justifiable, highly desirable and less than two years away according to a bioethicist at Abertay University, Dundee.

Dr Kevin Smith published his views this month as an article in Bioethics, 'Time to start intervening in the human germline? A utilitarian perspective', claiming that the risks of genome-editing are now low enough to justify its use to modify human embryos.

In addition, he said this research could give hope to parents from passing on genetically-transmitted disorders to their future children. 'The human germline is by no means perfect, with evolution having furnished us with rather minimal protection from diseases that tend to strike in our later years, including cardiovascular disease, cancer and dementia,' said Dr Smith.

He explained that if common disorders could be avoided or even delayed by genetically editing humans, as has previously been achieved to an extent in animals, then this could 'substantially' extend the average disease-free lifespan.

Dr Smith warned that to win public trust, an ethical approach must be at the heart of any advances, acknowledging that 'society is largely opposed to genetically modifying humans', particularly after the controversial birth of the world's first genome-edited babies in China last year (see BioNews 977).

'However, by delaying an ethically sound move towards a world where we can reduce genetic disease, we are failing those who suffer through disease and debilitating conditions,' he said. 'If such negative attitudes to biomedical innovation had prevailed in the 1970s, the development and use of IVF… would have been severely delayed, and indeed might never have come to fruition.'

Furthermore, Dr Smith believes that the continued prohibition of germline genome editing is unethical. He considers the risks of creating a genome-edited baby to be at an acceptable level and we should proceed with utilising the CRISPR approach 'not immediately but within around 1–2 years to intervene in the human germline'.

However, experts in the field have criticised his views. Professor Joyce Harper of University College London Institute for Women's Health, who wants public debate and legislation to ensure its ethicality, said:

'I do not believe that there are adequate experiments that will 'prove' that this technology is safe. So we need to tread carefully.'

Sarah Norcross, director of the Progress Educational Trust, which publishes BioNews, said:

'Kevin Smith's 'utilitarian' proposal is thought-provoking but flawed. While it is true that we should consider the possible future benefits of establishing pregnancies using genome-edited embryos, it is equally true that we should consider the risks.' 

Norcross stressed, 'Lessons should be learned from the mistakes that were made last year, by the Chinese scientist who was responsible for the world's first genome-edited babies. If this technology is to be put to similar use in the future, then far higher scientific and ethical standards need to be met.'

SOURCES & REFERENCES
Designer baby revolution could be less than two years away, research suggests
The Independent |  19 November 2019
Genetically-modified babies 'ethically justifiable', academic claims
BBC |  19 November 2019
Genetically Modified Babies? Possible Within the Next Two Years, Scientists Claim
Nature World News |  21 November 2019
Time to start intervening in the human germline? A utilitarian perspective
Bioethics |  15 November 2019
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