Members of the Hinxton group – an international network of scientists, bioethicists, lawyers and political experts met last week in Great Britain and declared themselves “in favour of genetically modifying human embryos”.
According to this expert group, research involving genetic alterations in human embryos is “essential in order to gain basic knowledge of embryology”. This knowledge could, for instance, “lead to improvements in medically assisted procreation techniques”. Even if they are not currently in favour of genetically modified babies, they do not rule out the fact that this could be “morally acceptable in the future”.
“Gene editing is a rapidly advancing technique,” they explained. “There is and there will be pressure to take scientific decisions or even decisions regarding the financing, publication and management of such research”.
The interest in and concerns about such procedures have been rekindled following an announcement by Chinese scientists in March 2015 who modified human embryo DNA using the CRISPR-Cas9 tool(cf. Gènéthique du 24 avril 2015). This acts like a pair of new “genetic scissors”which allow DNA fragments to be modified precisely. These procedures pave the way for “designer babies(cf. Gènéthique du 20 mai 2015): This tool will allow us to target any gene to deactivate it, activate it, correct it and improve it, for example. The range of options is wider than ever”. This summer, The Economist pointed out that, “CRISPR can lead to a better world”. But “where will the race to alter nature eventually stop?”
The scientific community is divided on this issue. A few months earlier, other scientists published a paper on the Natureforum requesting a moratorium on the genetic modifications of human reproductive cells, triggering genome modifications in descendants without any proof that these techniques are actually safe for future generations.
The NIH (National Institutes of Health) Director, Francis Collins, has consolidated the Institute’s resolute position against the public financing of research involving the handling of human embryos, which is “universally viewed as a line not to be crossed”(cf. Gènéthique du 30 avril 2015).
This technique, “is in the throes of revolutionising contemporary bioethical issues,” observed Jean Yves Nau. The “attempt to alter nature” is strong and affects all areas. However, “the debate has not yet reached France,”he observed: no political, scientific or media response.“The national Ethics Committee is still there– but where is it hiding?”