A consortium of medical research funders and learned societies has called for further research into the genetic modification of human cells, as well as a national debate into the ethics of such techniques.
'We believe that responsibly conducted research of this type, which is scientifically and ethically rigorous and in line with current legal and regulatory frameworks, should be allowed to proceed,' the statement reads.
Genome editing is a powerful tool that has been hailed as potentially 'game-changing' by the statement's lead authors from the Wellcome Trust. Rapid developments in the technology through the development of the CRISPR/Cas9 system mean that the process has become relatively simple and even more precise than in the past.
The technique allows sections of faulty DNA in the genome to be precisely edited using so-called 'molecular scissors'. This new approach could potentially be used to correct harmful mutations such as those that cause metabolic disorders or to create cells that are resistant to infections such as HIV.
Recently, a group of Chinese researchers used the CRISPR/Cas9 technique to fix a defective gene in IVF embryos to create embryos free of a serious blood disorder (see BioNews 799) and researchers at the University of California were able to cut and paste DNA into T-cells of the immune system (see BioNews 813).
'Although currently at an early stage, this technology has the potential, in future decades, to help people with devastating diseases,' said Aisling Burnand, chief executive of the Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC) and one of the statement's signatories.
Genome editing of germ cells has been the topic of much debate, with these discussions going from hypothetical to urgent over recent months as the efficacy of the CRISPR technique has emerged. Making changes to the germline could mean any unintentional harmful consequences could be passed down from generation to generation. Some also fear that, if not properly regulated, the technique could pave the way for 'designer babies' where parents can select certain traits in their offspring.
Given this controversy the authors of the statement also call for a detailed public debate on the future use of this technology. The position of the signatories differs from that of US researchers, including those who developed the CRISPR/Cas9 technique, who have urged an international moratorium on its use in germline cells (see BioNews 795).
Katherine Littler, senior policy advisor at the Wellcome Trust, told the Guardian: 'Let's have some well thought-through debates. A moratorium is the wrong starting point. We want an open dialogue. We want people to have an open mind about the issues rather than respond straight away.'
She added in a press statement: 'It's essential that we start these discussions early... involving scientists, ethicists, doctors, regulators, patients and their families and the wider public.'
The statement was signed by the biomedical research funders the Medical Research Council, the Wellcome Trust, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council as well as the AMRC and the Academy of Medical Sciences.
The Progress Educational Trust's public conference 'From Three-Person IVF to Genome Editing: The Science and Ethics of Engineering the Embryo' is taking place in central London on Wednesday 9 December 2015. Find out more here.