Genome editing could be considered “morally acceptable” in human reproduction, according to an independent report.
The Nuffield Council on Bioethics said there is no reason in principle to rule out heritable genome editing – when the DNA of a human embryo, sperm or egg is deliberately altered to influence the characteristics of a future individual.
However the welfare of the future person and any possible impact on society must be at the heart of decision-making, it said.
The body, which explores ethical questions raised by advances in biology and medicine, called on the Government to act now to support public debate on the issue and ensure a “responsible way forward”.
Genome editing, which targets DNA sequences in living cells, could in theory be used to change the human embryo before it is transferred to the womb.
This is not currently permitted under UK law, but could allow parents to exclude an inherited disease or predisposition to cancer in their unborn child in the future.
Professor Karen Yeung, chairwoman of the council’s working party, said: “We have concluded that heritable genome editing could be morally acceptable.
“More specifically, it is our view that heritable genome editing is not unacceptable in itself, and therefore there is no reason to rule it out in principle.”
The council’s report recommends any interventions must be in the interests of the social, physical and psychological welfare of the future person, and “should not increase disadvantage, discrimination or division in society”.
Some fear heritable genome editing could lead to stigmatisation of disabled people, with fewer suffering from certain conditions, and that there may be less investment in research and support services.
The council said the technology should only be permitted following rigorous public debate, when there has been sufficient research into safety, and once any possible impacts on individuals, groups and society have been properly assessed.
It also said that if the technology is permitted, it should be strictly regulated by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority in the UK and only be allowed on a case-by-case basis.
“We have said that there is not an absolute reason not to pursue it,” Hugh Whittall, director of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, said.
“The point is to have a way of progressing responsibly, so the pathway towards it is one that is a responsible way forward.”
The council called on the Government to establish an independent body to advise on the impact of biomedical technology, and to support “broad and inclusive societal debate” on the issue.
Professor Yeung said there is still “great uncertainty” over what genome editing may be able to achieve, but described it as a “realistic prospect”.
“There is potential for it to be used at some point in the future in assisted human reproduction as a means for people to secure certain characteristics in their children,” she said.
“Initially this might involve preventing the inheritance of a specific genetic disorder, however if the technology develops we can see that there is potential for it to become an alternative strategy available to parents for achieving a wider range of goals.”