Page URL:

UK science bodies call for gene-editing debate

7 September 2015
Appeared in BioNews 818

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.

In the joint statement, five funders of UK medical research declared their support for research into genome editing and its potential use in future therapies for serious genetic disorder.

'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.

Calls for IVF laws to be changed to take advantage of gene editing technique
The Independent |  2 September 2015
GM embryos: time for ethics debate, say scientists
The Guardian |  2 September 2015
Human genome-editing research should proceed, say leading UK science bodies
Wellcome Trust (press release) |  2 September 2015
Initial joint statement on genome editing in human cells
Wellcome Trust |  2 September 2015
Medical specialists urge more debate on gene-editing technology
Reuters UK |  2 September 2015
7 December 2015 - by Rhys Baker 
This 50-minute radio broadcast provides an 'appetiser' on CRISPR and the ethics surrounding genome editing...
12 October 2015 - by Dr Silvia Camporesi and Dr Lara Marks 
The UNESCO International Bioethics Committee has released a statement reaffirming an earlier moratorium called by a group of US scientists on the use of CRISPR/Cas9 in human embryos. We argue that the current framing of the debate in terms of dystopic or imagined futures is too narrow and constrains the boundaries of the debate to germline applications...
21 September 2015 - by Kirsty Oswald 
Researchers from London's Francis Crick Institute are seeking permission to edit the genome of human embryos...
14 September 2015 - by Kirsty Oswald 
The influential Hinxton group has said that the genetic modification of human embryos should be allowed...
3 August 2015 - by Lubna Ahmed 
Researchers have successfully used the technique CRISPR/Cas 9 to cut and paste genes into T-cells of the immune system...
6 July 2015 - by Cait McDonagh 
The US Congress has released a bill that would prohibit the Food and Drug Administration from spending any money in relation to projects that involve editing the human genome...
26 May 2015 - by Ceri Durham 
Scientists will gather in the USA later this year to produce ethical guidelines on the use of human gene-editing techniques such as CRISPR/Cas9....
11 May 2015 - by Dr Calum MacKellar 
The short article by Robin Lovell-Badge entitled 'Editing human embryos' addressing the work of Junjiu Huang and colleagues in China on gene editing in human embryos - such as the use of the CRISPR/Cas9 system - raises a number of ethical questions....
5 May 2015 - by Ayala Ochert 
The US National Institutes of Health has issued a firm statement that it will not fund any research involving gene-editing technologies in human embryos...
to add a Comment.

By posting a comment you agree to abide by the BioNews terms and conditions

Syndicate this story - click here to enquire about using this story.