March of science: The 21st century will be the age of genetics

It is time to put our fears about ‘designer babies’ into perspective

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The Independent Online

Genetic engineering. Applied to strains of wheat, the words are controversial enough. Applied to human beings, they conjure a nightmare future of biological totalitarianism. In reality, though, even the bravest of new worlds is not quite so black and white. Scientific progress comes with as much potential for good as for ill, after all.

The breakthrough in gene therapy revealed by this newspaper today raises such questions as starkly as ever. Even to the initiated the breakthrough is “jaw-dropping”, to quote Nobel laureate Craig Mello. To the rest of us, the implications are nigh unimaginable.

Until now, it has only been possible to “edit” a living genome using dangerously blunt methods; modified viruses are sure to alter infected cells’ DNA, but exactly how and where they will do so is beyond our control. A new technique, developed from bacteria’s ability to slice up viruses, changes everything. The procedure is not only simple, it is breathtakingly precise. But if the process itself is astounding, its prospective uses are even more so. Indeed, “Crispr” – its technical name – has already spawned a flood of applied research in the year since it was developed at a university in California. From improved crops to cleverer medicine, this is a step forward so profound that it takes genetics into a new era of practical benefits and ethical concerns.

Among the myriad possible applications, the implications for so-called “germ-line” therapies to fix heritable single-gene disorders are particularly noteworthy – and particularly controversial. Such techniques are banned under current laws because of concerns that, by modifying the DNA in IVF embryos, the changes are not only spread throughout the organism but are also passed from them to future generations. Cue prophecies of “designer babies” engineered for anything from eye colour to intelligence to hand-eye co-ordination, if not all three.

There are, of course, very real dangers too. But the risk of future misuse cannot be a reason not to pursue medical treatments which could remedy disorders that blight both individual lives and generations of afflicted families. Germ-line gene therapy was banned primarily because it was unsafe, but Crispr changes the ethical equation. And, with that change, our approach to germ-line gene therapies will need to be reconsidered.

Britain has form in such matters. We have always been at the forefront of fertility treatment. Louise Brown – the world’s first test-tube baby – was born here. Our Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority was the first of its kind in the world, created following the Warnock report, which itself set a global standard.

The HFEA is already probing the edges of its long-standing ban on germ-line therapies with a public consultation on mitrochondrial replacement – a practice which would banish the spectre of one type of genetic disorder, creating what have become known as three-parent babies in the process. Thanks to Crispr, it is time to break new ground once again.

Yes, there are risks. But progress has always been a risky business. The alternative is neither morally nor practically preferable, it is simply more passive. Modern genetic science, with its promise of revolutionary medical advance, is surely to be embraced rather than feared.