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Moral storm as designer babies get green light

Is it ethical to genetically engineer humans? A top bioethics council has declared gene editing of human embryos “morally permissible”. Some fear the social consequences could be disastrous. Genetically modifying human DNA on a grand scale was once the preserve of science fiction. But as technology makes this vision possible, scientists must grapple with the profound ethical implications of their new powers. And yesterday, a fiery debate was sparked as the UK’s Nuffield Council on Bioethics declared it “morally permissible” to modify the genes of future children. The benefits could be revolutionary. By changing or deleting specific pieces of DNA within embryos, gene editing could wipe out life-changing, previously incurable, diseases. However, some worry it could lead to an age of “designer babies”, in which parents who can access the technology genetically engineer advantageous traits — making their offspring stronger, healthier and smarter. The council said that procedures should only take place if they do not harm wider society. Nonetheless, professor Karen Yeung states that gene editing has “broader social implications, which have profound consequences”. Public opinion on the issue is divided. In a Pew Research survey, 48% of respondents approved of gene modification to reduce a baby’s risk of serious disease. But how advanced is the science behind the debate? The most heralded gene-editing tool is called CRISPR. According to one of its developers, Jennifer Doudna, the process can edit or delete genes in “virtually any living plant’s or animal’s genome.” A breakthrough came last year when scientists successfully edited a non-viable human embryo — correcting a gene linked to a potentially fatal heart disorder. But the process is not perfect. Just this week, researchers found that CRISPR may also cause unforeseen collateral damage to DNA, potentially leading to dangerous mutations. Furthermore, in terms of designer babies, there is a long way to go before scientists can feasibly engineer traits like intelligence or athleticism. By one count, something as simple as height is controlled by up to 93,000 genetic variations. Is it ethical to genetically engineer humans? Maybe Baby Absolutely not, some argue. At its worst, gene editing will drive a wedge through society — creating a genetically inferior underclass of families who cannot afford “designer babies”. Even preserved for medical use, the procedures might cause unpredictable mutations, ruining the health of untold numbers. Not so fast, others respond. It has the potential to save millions of lives from diseases that would otherwise be incurable. Overblown fears of mutations or social chaos only stop progress being made, preventing people getting the help they need. With proper oversight and ethical practice, gene editing could spark a new era in human health. KeywordsDiseases - Illnesses

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