Gene editing: Ethical issues 'should be discussed'

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Ethical questions around a new gene editing technology need to be considered now - even though its use may be some way off, experts say.

The Nuffield Council for Bioethics was looking into CRISPR - a biological system for altering DNA.

Scientists believe CRISPR could have radical effects on areas as diverse as disease prevention and food security.

The Nuffield Council said discussing ethical issues now would aid public understanding of the new technology.

John Dupre, professor of philosophy of science at the University of Exeter, who is chair of the Nuffield Council Bioethics working party on genome editing in livestock, said: "It is highly desirable to involve the ethical and regulatory considerations as early as possible in the development of a possible transformational technique.

"The example that comes to mind really is GM, where there was very little anticipation of the strength of public feeling."

Genome editing

Almost all cells in any living organism contain DNA, a type of molecule which is passed on from one generation to the next.

The genome is the entire sequence of DNA or an organism.

Genome editing is the deliberate alteration of a selected DNA sequence in a living cell, A strand of DNA is cut at a specific point and then natural cellular repair mechanisms repair the broken strands.

There are 4,000 known inherited single gene conditions, such as cystic fibrosis. affecting about 1% of births worldwide.

Possible paths ahead

Prof Dupre describes CRISPR as "satnav with scissors", because it uses proteins to cut DNA at a precise, targeted location.

But there are concerns about the potential consequences in people, such as the potential risks of unintended consequences of changing DNA and the implications for future generations.

Another worry is that research could be used in the engineering of "desirable genetic characteristics" instead of disease prevention.

Prof Karen Yeyng, chair of the Nuffield Council's working party on human reproductive applications, said: "Genome editing is a potentially powerful set of techniques that holds many future possibilities, including that of altering certain genetic features at the embryonic stage that are known to lead to serious and life-limiting disease.

"In the UK and in many other countries, a long path to legislative change would have to be followed before this could become a treatment option.

"But it is only right that we acknowledge where this new science may lead and explore the possible paths ahead to ensure the one on which we set out today is the right one."

The Nuffield report says preventing the application of inherited genetic diseases and increasing food production rates in farm animals are two potential CRISPR applications that require urgent ethical scrutiny.

Concerns were raised in 2015 after it was reported that a Chinese team of researchers had corrected disease-causing genetic mutations in non-viable embryos, so they were not allowed to develop.

The UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) also granted a licence in February this year to allow genome editing of embryos in the UK.

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