Britain may need to change its IVF laws to allow the genetic modification of human embryos so that scientists can use a gene-editing technique that could eliminate certain inherited diseases
At present, it is illegal to alter the genes of reproductive “germ cells” such as eggs, sperm and embryos, but the clinical benefits of modifying the human germ-line could one day eclipse the ethical objections, says a statement by two government research councils and a coalition of medical research charities.
While the US has imposed a postponement on the use of genome editing of human embryos, the joint statement issued on Tuesday implies that the day might soon come in the UK when it is ethically justified to implant the first genetically modified embryo in a womb. Many see no reason why the gene-editing technique known as Crispr-Cas9 should not be used immediately on early IVF embryos for research purposes provided they are not implanted into the womb – which is currently allowed under existing legislation.
It’s also thought that the possibility that Crispr-Cas9 may eventually prove to be safe enough to use clinically on IVF embryos and human embryos and germ cells to help families suffering from inherited diseases to have healthy babies who will not suffer from or pass on the defect to future generations.
“We believe that genome editing technologies may hold significant potential for clinical application in the future; and we would be open to supporting the development of new therapeutic approaches should the evidence from research advance sufficiently to justify their use,” says a joint statement.
“We recognise that there may be future potential to apply genome editing in a clinical context using human germ cells or embryos, though this is prohibited by law in the UK and unlikely to be permissible in other European jurisdictions at present.
“This raises ethical and regulatory questions, which need to be anticipated and explored in a timely and inclusive manner as the basic research proceeds and prior to any decisions about clinical application,” it states.
In addition to the MRC and the Wellcome Trust, the statement is signed by the Academy of Medical Sciences, the Association of Medical Research Charities and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. The biomedical organizations want a wider debate on the use of Crispr-Cas9, which is a relatively simple and effective way of germ-line editing of the genome to eliminate the mutations and inherited defects behind the 6000 single-gene diseases.
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