The world has moved a step closer to allowing scientists to edit the heritable genes of embryos, as a report has been published on the criteria that would need to be met in order for doctors to perform such a process.
Genome editing is nothing new - in fact it is already widely used in research and clinical trials for non-heritable applications, for those that involve somatic cells, which are any cells in a living organism apart from the reproductive cells.
By adding, removing, or replacing DNA base pairs in gametes or early embryos, scientists are currently able to treat or prevent diseases or disabilities.
While this type of editing does come under some criticism, because it could be seen to be enhancing human traits and capabilities, such as physical strength or appearance, it is being developed across the board.
However the new report is now looking at germline genome editing for heritable genes, which means that any editing not only affects the initial patient, but then goes on to be passed down to any potential future offspring as well.
And this is where the new contention arises.
According to the report, concerns involve spiritual objections, the affect it might have on societal attitudes towards disabled people, and risks to the health of future children.
But equally, it cannot be disputed that it could provide answers for people with genetic disorders who want to become parents but not pass on their condition.
Although this technology is not yet ready to be tested in humans - and is still prohibited in the USA by the USA’s Food and Drugs Administration policy - the assembling of a committee by the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine to examine the prospect, and subsequent publishing of a report acknowledges that it could be on the horizon.
The report states that it has become “a realistic possibility that deserves serious consideration,” as every year sees more precise and less expensive genome editing tools becoming available.
Alta Charo, co-chair of the study committee said: “Human genome editing holds tremendous promise for understanding, treating, or preventing many devastating genetic diseases, and for improving treatment of many other illnesses.”
The report recommends that genome editing for enhancement should not be allowed at this time, and that broad public input and discussion should be solicited before allowing any clinical trials for a purpose other than preventing or treating disease and disability.