Irish fertility expert shocked at approval for genetically-modified babies

An Irish fertility expert says he is shocked scientists in the United States has effectively given the green light to creating genetically-modified babies.

The US National Academies of Sciences and Medicine recommended that, with rigorous oversight, human gene-editing clinical trials could be allowed for serious inherited conditions.

The President of the Irish Fertility Association and medical director of Cork Fertility, Dr John Waterstone, does not believe human gene-editing is ethically acceptable.

“It is opening a Pandora’s box. It is fundamentally tampering with the genetic blueprint of life, and I think that is a step too far,” said Dr Waterstone.

“It is a profoundly radical step for the human race to take and I am shocked that the national academies have given it the green light. I am surprised that they did not just say no, this should not happen ever.”

The national academies’ report points out that technology is advancing very rapidly making heritable genome editing “a realistic possibility that deserves serious consideration”.

Although heritable germline genome editing trials must be approached with caution, it does not mean prohibition, the study committee said. At present, altering human germline (reproductive cells) is not allowed in the US and a number of other countries have signed an international convention that prohibits it.

Many oppose it on the grounds that permitting even unambiguously therapeutic interventions could start us down a path towards non-therapeutic genetic enhancement. If restrictions are removed, and for countries where germline editing would already be permitted, the committee recommends stringent criteria that would need to be met before going forward with clinical trials.

Dr Waterstone said Cork Fertility had been able to screen embryos to see which ones are free from a genetic disorder.

“We do preimplantation genetic diagnosis which some people would have ethical concerns about but I think it is very acceptable and at least it’s safe.”

Preimplantation genetic diagnosis is another stage within in vitro fertilisation (IVF), the process by which an egg is fertilised by sperm outside the body.

“So we can get around the genetic problem by choosing an embryo that will hopefully produce a baby that is not affected by the condition, but we are not interfering with the fundamental genetic code,” said Dr Waterstone.

The Department of Health is drafting legislation on assisted reproduction and had been working on it for some time and is aware that the planned legislation will have to address issues like human germline editing.

“Certainly a position about the ethical acceptability of human germline editing will need to be taken when we do have legislation to cover this whole area,” said Dr Waterstone.

“Using human germline editing to create babies in actual clinical practice is a terribly radical thing to suggest. I would imagine that a lot of people will come out and say this is going too far and we need to be more cautious.”

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