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Chief Scientific Adviser urges UK to lead the way on human genome editing

14 December 2015
Appeared in BioNews 832

The UK Government's Chief Scientific Adviser has made his first public statement on human genome editing. Speaking at the Annual Conference of the Progress Educational Trust (PET), the charity that publishes BioNews, Professor Sir Mark Walport said that the UK should lead the way in debating genome editing of human embryos.

'This is an important technology for the UK because we are good at the science, we're very good at the regulation and we're very good at the public discussion,' Professor Walport said.

Editing the genome of human embryos is controversial, due in part to concerns that changes to the germline – the part of our biology that is inherited by subsequent generations – could have adverse and unforeseen consequences.

Such concerns were expressed by a group of 150 researchers and campaigners, who called for a worldwide ban on human embryo genome editing ahead of an International Summit on Human Gene Editing in the USA last week (see BioNews 831). However, others argue that genome editing could pave the way for the prevention or avoidance of a wide range of disorders in humans.

Professor Walport warned against seeing the use of the technology as good or bad, and instead appealed for a more nuanced discussion. 'Is it a generically a good thing or not? It's a silly question. You need to ask for what particular gene, for what purpose, and for what potential benefits and risks,' he said at the conference.

Emphasising that further research is needed, Professor Walport said there are circumstances in which many people might say that modifying the human genome is acceptable.

PET's conference, entitled 'From Three-Person IVF to Genome Editing: The Science and Ethics of Engineering the Embryo', was a public event exploring what it means to make enduring and heritable changes to the human embryo. Current UK law permits licensed experiments on embryos, provided that the embryos are not allowed to develop beyond 14 days, but does not permit implantation of altered embryos into a woman.

Also speaking at the conference, Professor Azim Surani, director of germline and epigenomics research at the University of Cambridge, said that if experimentation on human embryos were permitted beyond 14 days this could 'make a huge difference' to progress in biomedical research.

Sarah Norcross, director of PET, said she understood the ethical concerns raised by critics of genome editing and said 'we are right to be cautious'. However, she argued that more research and debate is the best way to map potential opportunities and hazards related to these methods.

'We must have a full and open-ended debate about the circumstances in which we might one day wish to allow (or prohibit) genome editing in human reproduction,' she said in the Observer.

Revd Dr Brendan McCarthy, national adviser to the Church of England on medical ethics, was another speaker at PET's conference. He suggested that the Church might accept making changes to the germline if this could be shown to be safe, effective and fair.

Speaking to The Times after the conference, Revd McCarthy added: 'As with the mitochondrial donation debate, I expect that a wide range of opinions will be expressed within the Church, but I am assured that there is a commitment to engaging in a comprehensive, honest and informed examination of the scientific, social and ethical issues involved.'

PET would like to thank the sponsors of its conference - Merck, the Edwards and Steptoe Research Trust Fund, Ferring Pharmaceuticals, the London Women's Clinic, the Medical Research Council and Wellcome Trust.
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