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Nuffield Council publishes preliminary ethical review of genome editing

3 October 2016
Appeared in BioNews 871

Use of genome editing in human reproduction requires 'urgent ethical scrutiny', according to a report published by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics.

The preliminary report, 'Genome editing: an ethical review', looks at the potential impact of recent advances in the area, such as the development of the genome-editing technique CRISPR/Cas9. Following the report, the Council has now set up two expert groups to look in detail at two areas – human reproduction and livestock.

'Genome editing is already showing a potential to transform not only how biological research is carried out, but more importantly our expectations and ambitions for addressing challenges such as disease prevention and food security. Although most uses so far have been in research, the potential applications seem to be almost unlimited, given that the techniques are applicable to all organisms, from bacteria to plants, animals, and human beings,' said Dr Andy Greenfield, chair of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics Working Group.

The review follows significant developments in genome editing, such as the 2015 Chinese experiment editing the genes of human embryos, and the 2016 approval for genome-editing research on human embryos in the UK (see BioNews 799 and 837).

'Genome editing is a potentially powerful set of techniques that holds many future possibilities, including that of altering certain genetic features at the embryonic stage that are known to lead to serious and life-limiting disease,' says Professor Karen Yeung, chair of the Council's working party on human reproductive applications. 'In the UK and in many other countries, a long path to legislative change would have to be followed before this could become a treatment option.'

The report states that it is important to consider potential applications now, before they become practical choices: 'Addressing these difficult questions now will help meet concerns that technology is rushing ahead of public debate and allow such debate to influence the development of the technology, distinguish acceptable from unacceptable aims, and reduce the uncertainty and ambiguity for researchers and potential recipients of the technology.'

The two expert working parties, on human reproduction and livestock, will report their findings and recommendations in 2017.

Ethical review – published September 2016
Nuffield Council on Bioethics |  30 September 2016
Ethics review identifies top two challenges for genome editing
Nuffield Council on Bioethics (press release) |  30 September 2016
Experts warn home 'gene editing' kits pose risk to society
The Guardian |  30 September 2016
Gene editing: Ethical issues 'should be discussed'
BBC News |  30 September 2016
UK bioethicists eye designer babies and CRISPR cows
Nature |  30 September 2016
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The Nuffield Council on Bioethics presented its preliminary report 'Genome editing: an ethical review' in the genteel surroundings of the Royal Geographical Society in South Kensington...
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