Prof: ‘We can’t predict the harm caused by GM embryos’

A prominent medical ethics professor has warned that gene editing of human embryos could have unforeseen and potentially harmful consequences for future generations.

Writing in The Telegraph online, Professor Donna Dickenson explained that our descendants are unable to consent to germline editing “that will manipulate their welfare in ways that we cannot yet predict or alter if things go wrong”.

On Monday, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) gave the green light to UK researchers who want to genetically modify human embryos.

Decision

Subject to ethical approval, experiments on unwanted IVF embryos could start in the next few months. The current law does not allow these embryos to then be implanted.

… it’s unethical, it’s dangerous and it’s unnecessary.

Dr Peter Saunders

Professor Dickenson, Emeritus Professor of Medical Ethics at the University of London, said that subsequent generations may not welcome a “future free of genetic disability”, and they will have no way of changing “our decision” to genetically modify embryos.

She refuted claims from those in favour of this research that it is equivalent to choosing a child’s education.

International concern

She said, “education doesn’t permanently alter a child’s genome, nor affect the genes it will pass on to its own children”.

Prof Dickenson also pointed to international concern about genetically modifying embryos.

“Other countries such as the United States are just as advanced as Britain in gene editing – indeed, the techniques authorised by HFEA were partly developed in America. But these nations are, rightly, being more cautious in using it”, she said.

Dangerous

She added that a summit of the National Academies of Science in Washington called for “an international moratorium on germline genetic engineering, saying that it would be ‘irresponsible to proceed’ until the risks could be better addressed”.

Dr Peter Saunders, CEO of the Christian Medical Fellowship, also warned that the research is unethical, dangerous and unnecessary.

He said: “It’s unethical because it’s going to result in the destruction of dozens of embryos that could otherwise be implanted and donated.

Unpredictable

“It’s dangerous because of the unpredictable effects on the human genome that could be passed on down through the generations.

“And it is unnecessary because the genetic abnormalities responsible for miscarriage, which is why this is being sold to us, are not the sort of things that can be fixed by this technology anyway.”

The Center for Genetics and Society raised concerns that the HFEA’s decision could be part of a “strategy to overturn the widespread agreement that puts genetically modified humans off limits”.

The centre’s Executive Director Marcy Darnovsky said: “Now is the time to ensure that gene editing is not used to create GM babies, and that we stay off the high-tech road to new forms of inequality, and to a consumer-driven form of eugenics.”

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