An open letter from 150 scientists, campaigners and health experts is calling for a worldwide ban on genetic editing ahead of a summit in Washington
British scientists are among 150 experts calling for a worldwide ban on the genetic editing of embryos claiming the practice would ‘irrevocably alter the human species.’
Hundreds of geneticists are meeting in Washington this week to discuss whether there should be a global moratorium on engineering the DNA of humans if it means that genetic changes would be passed on to future generations.
Experts from Kings College London, Newcastle University and the University of London have joined with lawyers, sociologists and campaigners to call for an urgent ban on the practice warning it will lead to ‘designer babies’ and ‘GM humans.’
However other scientists claim that prohibiting research will only drive the practice underground to ‘black markets and uncontrolled medical tourism.’
In April China was ordered to ‘rein in’ scientists who altered the DNA of embryos to modify the gene responsible for the fatal blood disorder thalassaemia. The Francis Crick Institute in London is also currently seeking permission from theHuman Fertilisation and Embyrology Authority (HFEA) to carry out similar experiments in Britain although the embryos will not be implanted in humans.
In an open letter, scientists said there was ‘no justification’ for genetically modifying humans and claimed it could lead to a world where inequality and discrimination were ‘inscribed onto the human genome.’
Among them are Dr Michael Antoniou, Head of the Gene Expression and Therapy Group at Kings College London and Professor Donna Dickinson, emeritus professor of medical ethics at the University of London.
“Permitting germline intervention for any intended purpose would open the door to an era of high-tech consumer eugenics in which affluent parents seek to choose socially preferred qualities for their children,” they write.
“The implementation of heritable human genetic modification could irrevocably alter the nature of the human species and society.
“Experiments could lead to miscarriage, maternal injury and stillbirth. Genetically modified children who seem healthy at bird could develop serious problems later in life. We must not engineer the genes we pass on to our descendants.”
Gene therapy has been available since the 1970s but it is only recently that scientists have developed technology which can snip out parts of genetic code.
While the technique could permanently remove harmful mutations which lead to inherited diseases like Huntingdon’s, cystic fibrosis and haemophilia, critics say it could have unexpected side effects any may damage healthy strands of DNA.
However many scientists have resisted calls for an outright ban because they fear it will drive the practice underground.
Professor George Church, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, who helped develop some of the first genetic editing techniques said it would be naive to think a veto would stop unethical experiments.
“To think that there is not already a cadre of IVF clinicians poised to engage in such practices, perhaps even supported by governments, is to ignore, for example, the history of doping in sport,” he told the journal Nature Communications.
British scientists also argued that a global moratorium would do more harm than good, and said that tough regulation and transparency were the best methods of preventing unethical experimentation.
Shirley Hodgson, Emeritus professor of Cancer Genetics, St George’s University of London said: “I think a worldwide ban on gene editing is not possible, since the horse has bolted.
“It would not be a good idea to impose a moratorium on this technique, since it is a really important and useful new technique with many possibilities for improving many aspects of medical practice such as cancer treatments.
“A ban would either prevent important research in this area or drive it underground.”
Darren Griffin, Professor of Genetics at the University of Kent added: “I think there needs to be less haste and more research and an agreement that we don’t do it on humans for now until we get a better idea of the outcome.
“But if make a worldwide ban then you really do risk driving the whole thing underground. We need a set of guidelines which say, ‘let’s not do it on the human germline, but let’s do some regulated research. That will also give the social scientists an lawyers time to catch up.”
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act banned germline editing in 1990 but since then parliament has given the go ahead for babies to be created from the DNA of three people, to repair genetic faults. The first ‘three parent babies’ are likely to be born next year and the changes in their DNA will be passed on to their own children, placing germline editing in a legal grey area.
Alastair Kent, Director of the Genetic Alliance said gene editing was a ‘powerful tool’ that needed to be developed in a ‘transparent’ and ‘publically acceptable’ way.
“Banning would simply drive it to those parts of the world where science is already poorly regulated,” he said.
“I don’t think a worldwide ban is either desirable or practical.”
Bruce Whitelaw, Professor of Animal Biotechnology at The Roslin Institute in Edinburgh called for extensive debate before editing the human germline was allowed.
“Such use must be regulated and such projects be scrutinised before progressing,” he said “However I am not convinced a moratorium is the best way forward as this would stifle the opportunity to use this powerful molecular tool to investigate the early molecular events of human embryo development. I am also not convinced such a moratorium would be practical.”