Claire Robinson reports on the UK Science Media Centre’s response to news that Chinese researchers have genetically modified human embryos
Genetically modifying the DNA of human embryos is a "line that should not be crossed", said Dr Francis Collins, director of the US National Institutes of Health. Dr Collins was responding to reports that Chinese researchers have conducted human germline (inheritable) genetic engineering on human embryos, albeit non-viable ones – see the article below.
Many scientists, including the Chinese researchers themselves, agree with Dr Collins and have urged a moratorium on such genetic engineering.
Who doesn’t agree? The majority of the “experts” quoted by the UK Science Media Centre in response to the Chinese research.
One SMC “expert” even calls the moral outrage against the Chinese research hypocritical because “in the UK we have given the go ahead to modifying the DNA of babies who will transmit these changes indefinitely to their offspring.”
The UK’s gung-ho attitude towards human germline genetic engineering is out of line with the rest of the world.
There is a climate of revulsion against such engineering among international governments worldwide, which are rightly mindful of Nazi attempts at eugenics. This explains why the Chinese researchers’ paper was rejected by several journals for ethical reasons before finally being accepted and published.
But powerful groups based in the UK have gone against this international consensus. The Genetic Interest Group (now Genetic Alliance UK) has pushed successfully for patents on life to be allowed. The Progress Educational Trust also promotes human genetics research. Both organisations are associated with the libertarian, anti-environmental LM network, which opposes all restraints on “science” and “progress” and eulogises technologies like genetic engineering and human cloning. Both the Genetic Interest Group/Genetic Alliance UK and the Progress Educational Trust have links with the Science Media Centre. Fiona Fox, the director of the Science Media Centre, is also part of the LM network.
These groups and people in turn have ties to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), the UK regulator for in vitro fertilisation (IVF) treatment and human embryo research. The HFEA was set up as a result of the passage of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990. Among other things, the Act allows for the creation of human embryos outside the body and for their use in treatment and research.
An overview of the groups and companies involved in human genetics and the commodification of the human genome is here.
Lest anyone believe that human germline genetic engineering is needed to avoid passing on inherited diseases, Dr Marcy Darnovsky, from the Center for Genetics and Society in the US, cautions in the article below: "There is no persuasive medical reason to manipulate the human germline because inherited genetic diseases can be prevented using embryo screening techniques, among other means.” Darnovsky asks whether the only reason for human germline engineering might be “the prospect of so-called enhancement" – that means eugenics.
It is due to the UK’s unusually permissive regulatory framework for human reproductive technologies that one of the SMC “experts” quoted on the Chinese research, Prof Robin Lovell Badge, is able to offer the following advice (or advertisement?) to any researcher who wants to do human germline genetic engineering but is nervous of getting embroiled in ethical controversies:
“It is clear that if the work had been done in the UK, with the excellent regulatory system we have provided by the HFEA, any ethical concerns would have had to have been solved before the work could have been started, as it would require a licence from the HFEA. Indeed, with a licence, research of this sort could be conducted in the UK, and, with justification, it would be possible to use normally fertilised embryos.”
So there we have it. It's effectively an invitation. Come to the UK to do your human genetic engineering. We've set up our system to facilitate it.
US “will not fund research for modifying embryo DNA”
By James Gallagher
BBC News, 30 April 2015
Modifying the DNA of embryos is a "line that should not be crossed", a leading figure in US research says.
Dr Francis Collins, National Institutes of Health director, was responding to reports that the first embryos had been modified in China.
He argued there were "serious and unquantifiable safety issues", big ethical questions and no compelling medical reason to do it.
He said the NIH would not fund such research in the US.
The advent of "Crispr technology" - which is a more precise way of editing DNA than anything that has come before - has spurred huge progress in genetics.
But there had been growing concern these tremendous advances were making the modification of human embryos more likely.
Dr Tony Perry, a pioneer in cloning, told the BBC News website in January that designer babies were no longer "HG Wells" territory.
Concerns were also raised in the journal Nature as rumours circulated that it had already taken place.
Last week a team at Sun Yat-sen University, in Guangzhou, reported using Crispr to modify defective parts of DNA that lead to a blood disorder called beta thalassaemia.
Their world first, reported in the journal Protein and Cell, showed the correction was successful in seven out of 86 attempts.
However, there were a number of other "off-target" mutations introduced to the genetic code.
The embryos used were "non-viable" so could never have led to a child.
There have been repeated calls for a worldwide freeze on such research while society as a whole decides what should be allowed.
However, the US National Institutes of Health has made its position clear - that no such research should take place.
Dr Collins, who was also a key player in the Human Genome Project, released a statement saying: "The concept of altering the human germline in embryos for clinical purposes has been debated over many years from many different perspectives, and has been viewed almost universally as a line that should not be crossed.
"Advances in technology have given us an elegant new way of carrying out genome editing, but the strong arguments against engaging in this activity remain.
"These include the serious and unquantifiable safety issues, ethical issues presented by altering the germline in a way that affects the next generation without their consent, and a current lack of compelling medical applications."
Dr Marcy Darnovsky, from the Center for Genetics and Society in the US, argued: "There is no persuasive medical reason to manipulate the human germline because inherited genetic diseases can be prevented using embryo screening techniques, among other means.
"Is the only justification for trying to refine germline gene editing the prospect of so-called enhancement?"