A panel of scientists and experts in the United Kingdom presented a report on the genetic modification of future generations. It argued for a controlled use of the manipulation of the DNA of embryos, most importantly in order to fight against certain diseases, but also for more superficial aims such as the choice of hair or eye colour. This perspective is far from pleasing for everyone.
The advancement of technology in the field of genetic engineering is bound to greatly question our society, and will most likely change it forever. With this in mind, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics (NCB), an independent and influential panel of British scientists and experts, has just published a lengthy report that will undoubtedly boost debate on the subject.
In the document, the experts take stock of the permitted genetic modifications of embryos in Great Britain, and the future of the practice. They explain their desire to allow the modification of babies’ genomes, primarily in order to prevent certain diseases. Today, the law does not allow these types of experiments on humans, and strongly limits experiments in laboratories. But these manipulations are theoretically possible thanks to the new CRISPR cas9 technology.
Modifying the DNA of a cell at will
Behind this inelegant name hides a kind of molecular chisel, which allows DNA strands to be cut in very precise places. Scientists can then correct some genetic mutations that cause disease. Once this complex CRISPR is introduced into the nucleus of a cell, it is used to disable certain DNA sequences. In the laboratory, researchers are even able to replace certain sequences, and thus add or subtract DNA to or from the genome of a species.
By using this method on human embryos, it is theoretically possible to protect future babies from certain pathologies. In their report, experts at the NCB highlight the possibility of treating genetic diseases, or even limiting the susceptibility to cancer and neurodegenerative diseases. But the potential goes far beyond a therapeutical interest. Using this approach, all our character traits are theoretically modifiable. This is where the ethical issues come into play.
What are the uses of this technology?
If the need to avoid certain genetic diseases in the interests of the future child can easily be justified, NCB experts said that they do not exclude a cosmetic use of this technology. According to them, modifying the genome in order to ensure the child will be taller or to change the eye or hair colour could be considered, provided that it gives the child more of a chance at success.
Professor Karen Yeung, an expert on the council and a specialist in genetic manipulation and human reproduction, explained: ‘While there is still uncertainty about what genome modification can do […], we have concluded that its use for the purpose of influencing the characteristics of future generations was not unacceptable in itself.’ By following these guidelines, these ‘made to order’ babies could be born in the future, under certain conditions.
How to decide which changes are acceptable?
As the experts pointed out in their report, any changes by genetically engineering an embryo must benefit the future child. Nevertheless, this criterion remains very vague and the use of this method could be defended for socially advantageous modifications such as ensuring a child will be tall or to increase intellectual capacities.
A second criterion mentioned would be to evaluate the impact of the change on the human genome as a whole. The modified characteristics of an embryo do enter into the genetic capital of the whole species, because they are transmitted from generation to generation. However, the long-term consequences are very difficult to quantify and could pose more problems than they solve.
Finally, a central point is addressed, that of the impact of such practices on society. Members of the NCB said that ‘genetic manipulation should not increase inequality, discrimination or divide people in society.’ These statements about future possibilities don’t go into much detail, meanwhile changes in embryos are already emerging.
Methods that are slowly evolving in this direction
The council has already given the green light to these controversial processes, such as a ‘three parent’ baby. Children born following this procedure carry the DNA of their parents, and that of an additional ‘mother’, in order to replace part of a transmitted genome which posed serious problems in the internal functioning of the cells.
Following extensive public consultation and a vote in the UK parliament, the law was changed to allow this procedure. The first babies with the DNA of three people should be born in late 2018 or early 2019. Still, the significant opportunities that this technology allows still remains quite limited.
Today, British scientists are allowed to modify the genes of human embryos up to 14 days of development. After that, the embryos are destroyed. It is completely illegal to implant these embryos in a woman so that she gives birth to it, at least for now. The Nuffield Council suggests that this procedure become legal, an opinion that they are not the only ones to have in the field.
An already controversial report
Today the debate is just beginning and the legislative process is far from having begun. A broad consultation of the population is required first, before discussions in the British parliament begin. But voices are already being raised against the NCB’s opinion. Asked by the Telegraph, Professor David King, director of the Human Genetics Alert group has described their verdict as a ‘real shame.’
‘British citizens decided 15 years ago that they do not want GMO food, do you think they want genetically modified babies?’ he explained. On a more technical side, Professor Allan Bradley, author of a recent study on the potential dangers of CRISPR technology, calls for caution. ‘It is important for anyone who thinks they are using this technology to treat genetic diseases to act carefully, and cautiously check that they do not produce any harmful effects.’