There has been a flurry of news reports (and here) in favour of a new technology that could edit the genome of human embryos, making changes that would be passed down the generations. More information on the benefits and potential costs of this interesting new technology, crispr/cas9, is here.
The news reports have been prompted by two new developments.
Last week, a statement was issued by an influential group of scientists, the Hinxton Group, which in effect asked for an open door to permit the genetic editing of human embryos for therapeutic purposes and, in the longer term, to permit these GM embryos to be born.
‘Public policies carry great power to facilitate or restrict scientific exploration in the area of human genome editing. Policymakers should be circumspect when regulating science. When enacted, policies governing science nationally and internationally ought to be flexible, so as to accommodate the rapidity of scientific advance as well as changes of social values.’
The only proviso of the Hinxton Group to a completely open door is that it needs a bit more time and basic research before being allowed to be used for reproductive reasons ie. for GM babies to be born. For now, in their view, germline research should be permitted for research purposes on human embryos, in order to build up the research needed: ‘… to inform the plausibility of developing safe human reproductive applications.’ (emphasis added)
The second development in the news today is that British scientists have already applied for a license to create GM embryos using this new technique. If it is allowed (highly likely given that the HFEA rarely prevents licenses for embryo research) the UK will follow China alone in doing this.
The reason I give it five years before GM babies can be created in the UK?
The precedent set by the reports, research, debates and Parliamentary vote to allow ‘three parent babies’ (through ‘mitochondrial donation’) suggests that the UK will follow the same successful process of manipulation of the public, media and Parliament in order to permit germline research and reproduction using these new gene editing techniques.
That process took just under five years and the softening has already begun now for this.
As before, the first step is the background paper by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, behind closed doors, primarily driven and written by scientists. Nuffield have begun the process with a paper that sets out the (narrow) parameters of discussion. They say that this will then be opened to the public, but it will no doubt be dominated – as happened before – by invited scientists, by their major funders who back the research, and with nominal representation by ethicists.
In the past, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, has in general sought to be independent. However, their report on ‘mitochondrial donation’ seriously undermined the appearance of independence. They launched the consultation on the same day as the Wellcome Trust announced funding for the research, creating the distinct impression of a fait accompli. The Nuffield report endorsed research funded by its major funders (the MRC and Wellcome), without declaring an interest, thereby weakening the credibility of its conclusion. In effect, the Nuffield Council appeared to function as an instrument of public policy.
The next step was for the HFEA to get involved. The HFEA is even more influenced by scientists involved in the research and funding and, years ago, crossed the boundary from regulation to advocacy. They, unsurprisingly, followed up Nuffield with a remarkably similar detailed report and conclusions. As well as their own, similar report, the HFEA cited misleading public consultation findings based on misrepresentative data and biased questions. Finally, the Government cited both organisations, claiming full public support and the backing of in-depth research, to justify and approve regulations to permit use of the technique, despite well-publicised safety flaws and concerns with using it.
In all of this the Science and Media Centre played a significant role in influencing public opinion.
So it is highly likely that the UK will permit licenses for germline research on human embryos up to 14 days using this same process very soon. The UK will not want to be ‘left behind’ with the research. The key is that this will then provide the stepping stone to using it for reproductive purposes, as the Hinxton Report suggests and requests.
The process could well be quicker than five years.
By permitting replacement of all genes in an embryo’s nuclear genome under the inaccurate term ‘mitochondrial donation’, to create three parent babies, the UK Government has already set the precedent for modification of any gene in an embryo’s nucleus, even though the techniques covered by the recently passed regulations will not directly permit this.
However, rather than this encouraging our own scientists to consider similar caution, a moratorium in the US is more likely to be seen as providing an opportunity for UK PLC to strengthen its position in the field and attract the best crispr/cas9 (gene editing) scientists.
Hence the UK establishment would ideally prefer to close off the risk of a moratorium being declared here. Already there are editorials and commentaries in the media, by scientists (or others closely linked to scientists doing or funding the research), who are calling for the UK NOT to put in place a moratorium to slow or prevent this research on embryos.
I should clarify, not all the applications of this new technology are unethical, and indeed many are very exciting. This blog simply highlights the way in which public debates are manipulated, and to warn that this particular debate is already being dominated by invited scientists, with nominal representation by ethicists. Five years is not a long time, but a lot can change in five years.