Scientists could be allowed to make modifications in human DNA that can be passed down through subsequent generations, the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine say.
Such a groundbreaking step should only be considered after more research and then only be conducted under tight restrictions, the academies write in a highly anticipated report released Tuesday. Such work should be reserved to prevent serious diseases and disabilities, it says.
The academies determined that new gene-editing techniques had made it reasonable to pursue such controversial experiments down the road, though not quite yet.
“It is not ready now, but it might be safe enough to try in the future,” R. Alta Charo, a bioethicist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who co-chaired the committee, said. “And if certain conditions are met, it might be permissible to try it.”
That conclusion counters a long-standing taboo on making changes in genes in human sperm, eggs or embryos because such alterations would be inherited by future generations. That taboo has been in place partly because of fears that mistakes could inadvertently create new diseases, which could then become a permanent part of the human gene pool.
Another concern is that this kind of genetic engineering could be used to make genetic modifications for nonmedical reasons.
For example, scientists could theoretically try to create designer babies, in which parents attempt to select the traits of their children to make them smarter, taller, better athletes or to have other supposedly superior attributes.
Nothing like that is currently possible. But even the prospect raises fears about scientists essentially changing the course of evolution and creating people who are considered genetically superior, conjuring up the kind of dystopian future described in movies and books like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
“These kinds of scenarios used to be science fiction; they used to be seen as far-off hypotheticals,” says Marcy Darnovsky, who runs the Center for Genetics and Society, a genetic watchdog group. “But actually, right now, I think they’re urgent social justice questions.”
She says, “we’re going to be creating a world in which the already privileged and affluent can use these high-tech procedures to make children who either have some biological advantages” or are perceived to have biological advantages. “And the scenario that plays out is not a pretty one.”
But Charo says the report clearly states that any attempt to create babies from sperm, eggs or embryos that have had their DNA edited could only be tried someday under very tightly controlled conditions and only to prevent devastating medical disorders.