Proposals by the UK Government to permit the genetic alteration of human embryos for research purposes are paving the way for 'GM (genetically modified) humans', according to David King, director of pressure group Human Genetics Alert (HGA). However, scientists disagree, saying that such research should be permitted, as it will allow vital work into serious conditions such as muscular dystrophy and Parkinson's disease.
Last December, the Government published a White Paper proposing new legislation on assisted human reproduction and embryo research, following an extensive public consultation exercise on the current law - the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Act 1990. The proposals state that scientists will be able to alter the genetic material of human embryos grown in the laboratory for up to 14 days. They also state that the genetic alteration of embryos, sperm or eggs will not be permitted for reproductive purposes.
A press release by HGA states that 'after 25 years of genetic engineering of animals and plants, scientists are now ready to take the ultimate step: the genetic engineering of human embryos'. HGA claims that in ten years time, this could lead to a world of consumer eugenics, in which 'genetically enhanced human embryos are traded as commodities and the rich are able to give their children built-in biological advantages'. David King said that if the Government did not one day plan to allow the creation of genetically altered humans, then 'why allow scientists to begin research?', adding 'we must not start down the path to a future of GM "designer babies"'.
However, according to Dr Simon Best, chairman of the Bioindustry Association, HGA are 'misrepresenting the proposals in the White Paper and confusing issues'. He added that 'the ground-breaking medical research referred to in the White Paper would be conducted on a cluster of cells no bigger than a pin-head. Using these to produce babies is and should remain illegal'. Alistair Kent, director of the patient support organisation the Genetic Interest Group, said that HGA were resorting to 'shroud-waving in its efforts to hinder the progress of research into therapies for many currently lethal genetic diseases'. He said that the use of hybrid or genetically modified embryos is an area of research that patients and families want to see thoroughly explored.
Medical legal lawyer James Lawford-Davies pointed out that the current law on this issue 'has been hard to interpret and doesn't really reflect the concerns held at the time the legislation was being debated', adding 'it seems sensible to clarify the phrasing in the new Act to permit regulated research and avoid further legal dispute over its proper interpretation'.