Warning that rapid advances in genetics make “designer babies” an increasing possibility, a United Nations panel today called for a moratorium on “editing” the human genome, pending wider public debate lest changes in DNA be transmitted to future generations or foster eugenics.
While acknowledging the therapeutic value of genetic interventions, the panel stressed that the process raises serious concerns, especially if the editing of the human genome should be applied to the germline, thereby introducing hereditary modifications.
“Gene therapy could be a watershed in the history of medicine and genome editing is unquestionably one of the most promising undertakings of science for the sake of all humankind,” the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) said in a news release on a report by its International Bioethics Committee (IBC).
But the IBC added: “Interventions on the human genome should be admitted only for preventive, diagnostic or therapeutic reasons and without enacting modifications for descendants.” The alternative would “jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics,” it said.
This is not the first time that a UN body has raised such concerns. In 2010, UN chief Ban Ki-moon said that “as we develop technologies that enable us to make life-or-death decisions, we need a shared, value-based approach to what are fundamentally moral questions.”
In 2004, former Secretary-General Kofi Annan questioned whether such processes might promote a world dominated by eugenics like that imagined by Aldous Huxley in the novel Brave New World.
“The greatest fear is that we may be trying to 'play God,' with unforeseeable consequences, in the end precipitating our own destruction," Mr. Annan warned then, asking whether the dangers outweigh the benefits and where the line should be drawn between what is feasible and what is desirable or ethical.
In today's report IBC, comprising scientists, philosophers, lawyers and government ministers, noted that recent advances have opened the door to genetic screening and testing for inherited diseases, gene therapy, the use of embryonic stem cells in medical research and the possibility of cloning and genetic “editing” for both medical and non-medical ends.
It noted that scientists and bioethicists are calling for a wider public debate about the power of science to modify genetically human embryos in the laboratory, so as to control inherited traits, such as appearance and intelligence.
A new genome “editing” technique called CRISPR-Cas9 makes it possible for scientists to insert, remove and correct DNA simply and efficiently, IBC added. It holds out the prospect of treating or even curing certain illnesses, such as sickle cell diseases, cystic fibrosis and some cancers. But germline editing can also make changes to DNA, such as determining a baby's eye colour, easier for scientists working with human embryos, eggs and sperm.
The report also cautions against the hidden danger of do-it-yourself genetic testing, saying that consumers who tested their own DNA using so-called Direct-to-Consumer (DTC) kits bought online, needed professional genetic and medical counselling to understand and act on the results. It called for clear regulations and information for consumers about such tests.
UNESCO member States adopted the Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights in 2005 to deal with ethical issues raised by rapid changes in medicine, life sciences and technology. It states lists the human genome as part of the heritage of humanity, outlining rules that need to be observed to respect human dignity, human rights and fundamental freedoms.