By Ian Sample
The genetic engineering of humans has great potential to help those destined to inherit serious, incurable diseases, according to one of Britain’s most prominent scientists, who says the risks and benefits should be debated by society.
The invention of powerful new genome editing tools means researchers can now make precise changes to genetic material, and so consider correcting faulty DNA in human sperm, eggs and embryos.
While the procedure may prevent children from being born with serious disorders, the practice – known as “germline therapy” – is banned in Britain and many other countries, because the genetic changes would be passed down to future generations and the risks are largely unknown.
“There is great potential in germline therapy. There are clearly diseases that you could help by editing the germline,” said Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, who won the Nobel prize in chemistry in 2009 and became president of the Royal Society in December. “This is a case of a new technology where there are significant potential benefits, but also significant ethical implications.”
In a wide-ranging interview with the Guardian, Ramakrishnan, said the risks and benefits of the procedure, which would create the first genetically modified humans if given the green light, should be thrashed out in discussions that involve people from all walks of life.
“It’s definitely a major step, there’s no getting around that. That’s why it’s important to really slow down and not rush any decisions,” he said. “What we need is a diverse and transparent group of people to really come together and get to grips with how do we go about using this tool and are there red lines. They may well decide there are red lines we shouldn’t cross.
“The concern I have is the same as with any other technology, which is that once a technology is feasible, we may well regulate it, but someone somewhere may start using it in ways we consider unethical,” he added.
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