Gene Editing of Human Embryos 'Morally Permissible'

Peter Russell

July 17, 2018

An inquiry into the ethics of editing the DNA of a human embryo, sperm, or egg, to influence the characteristics of a future person has concluded it could be morally permissible.

However, the investigation by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, said stringent safeguards would need to be put in place first.

The report, Genome editing and human reproduction: social and ethical issues , said heritable genome editing should be permitted only when:

  • There had been the opportunity for a full public debate about its use and implications

  • Further research had been carried out to establish standards of clinical safety

  • The risks of harm for individuals, groups, and society as a whole have been assessed and measures put in place to monitor and review them

Heritable Genome Editing Applications

Karen Yeung, chair of the inquiry and professor of law, ethics, and informatics at the University of Birmingham, said: "There is potential for heritable genome editing interventions to be used at some point in the future in assisted human reproduction, as a means for people to secure certain characteristics in their children. Initially, this might involve preventing the inheritance of a specific genetic disorder.

"However, if the technology develops it has potential to become an alternative strategy available to parents for achieving a wider range of goals."

Genome editing could theoretically be used in assisted reproduction, such as IVF, to alter the DNA of a human embryo before it is transferred to the womb. It could be used to 'edit out' certain DNA code in embryos to prevent inheritable diseases in the future child or reduce the risk of cancer in later life.

The use of such a technique is not currently lawful in the UK.

Safeguards Needed

The Nuffield Report recommended that two fundamental principles should any future gene editing in order for it to be ethically acceptable. These were:

  • They must be intended to secure, and be consistent with, the welfare of the future person

  • They should not increase disadvantage, discrimination or division in society

In the event that the law was changed to allow gene editing, it should be:

  • Strictly regulated in the UK by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA)

  • Introduced via clinical studies, with monitoring of the long-term effects

  • Licensed on a case-by-case basis

Starting the Debate

Darren Griffin, professor of genetics at the University of Kent, described the inquiry report as "sensible" and that it had helped establish the pros and cons of gene editing. He told Medscape UK: "I was very pleased that both philosophically and from a legal basis they established the broad brush-strokes straight away: that you can establish it's not harmful to the future child, nor indeed to future society."

He said it was right to recommend a thorough debate that would build on the UK's established reputation in the field of genetic research. "If we think back into IVF history, all the press that was around the first IVF baby in 1978, and then the first genetic diagnosis around 1990; we had things like 'saviour siblings' in about 2008," he said. "So, we have a history of by and large getting it out there, getting it discussed, and passing legislation accordingly."

Prof Fiona Watt, executive chair of the Medical Research Council, said: "The UK conducts word-leading research in genome editing, supported by our robust ethical and regulatory framework. This is already a rigorously-monitored area of research but it is vital that we continue to assess safety and feasibility before gene edits that can be passed across generations are permitted in people.

"We strongly support the report's call for a public dialogue on this issue, as well as further research into the ethical and social impacts, to ensure this technology continues to be used only in an ethical and legally rigorous way."


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