UK scientists seek licence for GM embryos despite fears

UK researchers have applied for a licence to genetically modify embryos, despite growing fears about the practice both here and abroad.

Scientists at The Francis Crick Institute want to use a controversial technique called Crispr-Cas9 which can edit genes.

Earlier this year, the US medical research agency said it would not fund the genetic modification of embryos after a team in China used the technique to alter an abnormal gene.

Immediate global ban

They used abnormal embryos discarded by local fertility clinics in their work on a life-threatening blood disorder.

Dr David King, from Human Genetics Alert, warned that the news from China underlines the need for “an immediate global ban on the creation of genetically modified designer babies”.

“It is critical that we avoid a eugenic future. If China does not want to get the reputation of being the wild west of the new eugenics it must join the many countries – including the UK – which would ban such research.”

Designer babies

The Francis Crick Institute is the first to apply for a licence to genetically modify embryos for research using Crispr-Cas9 which, under UK law, cannot then be used in reproduction.

If genetically modified embryos were ever used in reproduction, ‘errors’ in the DNA could be passed into the human gene pool. Fears have also been raised about the prospect of designer babies.

The researchers want to use unwanted IVF embryos for the research.

Eugenics

In the UK two Government research councils and three medical research groups have said that the UK should proceed with exploring techniques such as Crispr-Cas9, and called for an international debate about the issues involved.

Last week, a retired surgeon and professor of Practical Theology said these calls amount to promoting a “form of eugenics”.

Prof Donald MacDonald, also a former moderator of the Free Church of Scotland, criticised research bodies who “use early human beings as a means to an end”.

He added, “this is a form of eugenics and could be abused by attempting to produce individuals with certain desirable characteristics rather than to prevent disease”.