Study on modifying genes in human embryos 'essential'

Expert group says it offers 'tremendous value' to research, understanding of the science

WASHINGTON • Research involving genetic modification of human embryos, though controversial, is essential to gain basic understanding of the biology of early embryos and should be permitted, an international group of experts said.

The statement was issued on Wednesday by members of the so-called Hinxton Group, a global network of stem cell researchers, bioethicists and policy experts who met in Britain last week.

The group said it did not currently favour allowing genetically modified human babies to be born.

"However, 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," the group said in a statement.

The expert group cited the "tremendous value to basic research" and said the science of gene-editing "will continue to progress rapidly, and there is and will be pressure to make decisions scientifically and for funding, publishing and governance purposes".

LEAVING OPTIONS OPEN

However, 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.

HINXTON GROUP, a global network of stem cell researchers, bioethicists and policy experts who met in Britain last week

Many scientists believe that genetically modifying human embryos crosses an ethical line and should remain taboo.

The United States National Institutes of Health (NIH), which funds biomedical research, refuses to provide money for any use of gene-editing technologies in human embryos. "The concept of altering the human germline in embryos for clinical purposes has been debated over many years from many different perspectives, and has been viewed almost universally as a line that should not be crossed," NIH Director Francis Collins said in April.

Dr Collins at the time noted that researchers in China had described experiments in faulty in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) embryos that would otherwise have been discarded to modify the gene responsible for beta-thalassemia, a potentially fatal blood disorder.

The researchers at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou said the gene-editing technology they used worked properly in only a tiny portion of those tested.

Genetic modification of the DNA in human embryos would not only affect the individual but their children and the succeeding generations. Advocates argue that could halt the inheritance of genetic diseases that run in families.

But critics say it could also pass on unforeseen medical problems that the procedures may cause. One of the main concerns is the risk of changes being made to healthy genes by accident.

Dr Debra Mathews of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics in Maryland and a member of the Hinxton Group steering committee said that despite deep moral disagreement on the subject, "what is needed is not to stop all discussion, debate and research".

Dr Mathews called for weighing the potential benefits and harmful effects of human genome editing for research and human health.

Dr Robin Lovell-Badge, a member of the Hinxton Group steering committee and head of the Laboratory of Stem Cell Biology and Developmental Genetics at the Francis Crick Institute in Britain, said: "Genome-editing techniques could be used to ask how cell types are specified in the early embryo and the nature and importance of the genes involved."

"Understanding gained could lead to improvements in IVF and reduced implantation failure, using treatments that do not involve genome editing," he added.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 11, 2015, with the headline 'Study on modifying genes in human embryos 'essential''. Print Edition | Subscribe