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Science panel okays one day editing human embryos

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But only to prevent disease

Baby - andre_anna/ Flickr

Scientists may one day genetically engineer humans — as long as the gene-editing technology is used to prevent babies from being born with diseases or disabilities, a science policy group said today in a report.

The 21-member committee — which was created by the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine — argued that this particular use of genetic engineering should only approved when there isn’t a “reasonable alternative” available. And, because genetic editing creates long-lasting changes that will be passed on to descendants, it is crucial that doctors track the results of the edits through multiple generations.

"It is not ready now, but it might be safe enough to try in the future," R. Alta Charo, a bioethicist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who co-chaired the committee, told NPR. "And if certain conditions are met, it might be permissible to try it."

The advent of powerful gene-editing tools like CRISPR have raised important ethical questions about genetic engineering. Because such technologies are not perfect, some fear that small mistakes will lead to permanent problems in the human gene pool.

Others are worried about societal effects — for example, that approving gene-editing for disability will create a slippery slope leading to “designer babies” and eugenics programs. Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, a public interest group based in Berkeley, California, told The New York Times that a decision like today’s “opens the door to advertisements from fertility clinics of giving your child the best start in life with a gene-editing packet” and that this would be harmful to people who are already disadvantaged.

The authors of today’s report stress that an absolute prohibition is not likely to work anyway. For example, there is already concern that such technologies will be adopted by countries such as China — where scientists have already used CRISPR in humans — regardless of regulations elsewhere. Last April, Chinese scientists used CRISPR to edit the genes of human embryos and make them resistant to HIV. Though the embryos were destroyed after three days, more attempts are sure to follow. A look at the legal landscape shows that many other countries have lax regulations as well. So it’s important to have regulations to “signal to the rest of the world what it should look like when it’s done right,” adds Charo.

For now, much of this is still speculation. Not only is federal funding of this type of genetic research banned, the US Food and Drug Administration is currently not allowed to review it.