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Ethics body in UK concludes that GMO babies could be 'morally permissible

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has decided that it could be "morally permissible" to edit embryo DNA in some cases. (Getty Images)

A leading ethics body in the United Kingdom has concluded that "heritable genome editing" could be "morally permissible" if used to exclude diseases.

The altering of targeted DNA in embryos before being transferred to the womb could become an option for parents who wish to influence the genetic characteristics of their future child, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics wrote in a press release Tuesday. The development of advanced genome technology has given scientists the ability to rewrite the DNA code in eggs, sperm, and embryos.

The landmark report, "Genome editing and human reproduction: social and ethical issues," calls for more research into the safety, effectiveness, impact on society and a widespread debate of its implications, The Guardian reported.

“It is our view that genome editing is not morally unacceptable in itself,” Karen Yeung, chair of the Nuffield working group and professor of law, ethics, and informatics at the University of Birmingham in the UK, said. “There is no reason to rule it out in principle.”

So, does this mean it's legal in the UK?

No. Laws in the UK and other countries do not allow the creation of genetically modified babies.

However, some experiments have shown that modifying DNA could, in principle, be used to prevent serious inherited diseases.

It's also not yet proven to be safe. The most popular tool used for genome editing, Crispr-Cas9, caused more damage to DNA than the British scientists previously believed. It's possible that editing faulty genes could disrupt healthy ones, according to The Guardian.

Additionally, changes made to an embryo's DNA means that all of its cells would be affected and passed down to future generations.

What are the warnings?

The report's authors recognize the potential for "unintended consequences" should the laws change.

“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," Yeung said in the release. "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."

In other words, DNA editing raises the chances of "designer babies" by rewriting the genetic code of embryos created through standard IVF.

What do supporters say?

George Church, a Harvard University geneticist, who was not involved in the report, told The Guardian that he agreed with the report that editing DNA “should not be expected to increase disadvantage, discrimination, or division in society,” but that making changes to some genes could save some babies from painful diseases.

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