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Gene editing of human embyros must be allowed, says Hinxton group

14 September 2015
Appeared in BioNews 819

The influential Hinxton Group has said that the genetic modification of human embryos should be allowed in research.

The international group of scientists, ethicists and policy experts, who met last week in Manchester, described such research as 'essential'. It also said that our knowledge 'is not sufficiently developed to consider human genome editing for clinical reproductive purposes at this time', but that gene-editing the human germline should not be completely ruled out in future.

'We acknowledge that when all safety, efficacy and governance needs are met, there may be morally acceptable uses of this technology in human reproduction, though further substantial discussion and debate will be required,' it writes.

The group's statement makes clear that it believes a distinction is needed between reproductive research using gene-editing technology and more basic research.

'It is our conviction that concerns about human genome editing for clinical reproductive purposes should not halt or hamper application to scientifically defensible basic research,' the group writes.

It suggests that such research includes improving gene-editing techniques in themselves and addressing fundamental questions about human biology.

'The relevant regulatory distinction should be not between using genome editing in somatic cells and using it in embryos, but between research and reproduction: whether those embryos are ever destined to be implanted,' said Dr Sarah Chan, a committee member from the University of Edinburgh.

'Restricting research because of concerns that reproductive application is premature and dangerous will ensure that it remains forever premature and dangerous, for want of better knowledge,' she added.

The position of the group contrasts with that taken by the US National Institutes of Health, which has stated that it will not fund any research that involves the genetic modification of embryos (see BioNews 800). Some of the scientists who pioneered the CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing technique have also called for a moratorium on its use (see BioNews 795).

However, in the UK, the Wellcome Trust and fellow research organisations recently expressed similar sentiments to the Hinxton group, stating that a moratorium was not the appropriate solution to ethical concerns (see BioNews 818).

'While there is controversy and deep moral disagreement about human germline genetic modification, what is needed is not to stop all discussion, debate and research,' said Dr Debra Mathews, a Hinxton group member from Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics.

Rather, she said, researchers should 'engage with the public, policymakers and the broader scientific community, and to weigh together the potential benefits and harms of human genome editing for research and human health.'

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.

SOURCES & REFERENCES
Genetically modified human embryos should be allowed, expert group says
The Guardian |  10 September 2015
GM embryos 'essential', says report
BBC News |  10 September 2015
Human genome editing research is essential, says influential Hinxton Group
Berman Institute of Bioethics (press release) |  10 September 2015
Research into GM human embryos 'essential', group argues
Wired |  10 September 2015
Research on gene editing in embryos is justified, group says
Science (AAAS) |  9 September 2015
Statement on Genome Editing Technologies and Human Germline Genetic Modification
The Hinxton Group (consensus statement) |  10 September 2015
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