Genethics

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Published: March 14, 2015 12:46:01 AM

A blanket ban on embryonic gene-editing would be regressive for all purposes

Fyodor Urnov, a pioneer of gene-editing techniques, and four other eminent scientists, have called for the larger scientific community to take a firm stand against embryonic gene-editing in humans, in a column published in Nature magazine. They fear that the ethical and safety concerns surrounding such efforts would blow up to a scale where they impede the application of the technique even in areas where it is less prone to opposition. Some of the best minds in the field have come out either in support of the stand or have condemned it as unnecessarily alarmist even as a new method of germline modification, or the editing of genes contained in an embryo or in the gametes, is expected to be unveiled shortly.

Germline modification has always been a polarising topic, with those against it fearing it will lead to “designer babies”—genetically modified to express ‘desirable’  traits—while supporters say that the broad purpose is to suppress genetically-determined diseases and syndromes.

Bioethicists have debated on whether the genetic make-up of an individual should be irrevocably changed without her consent. While these concerns are valid, a blanket ban on germline editing could be even worse. One of the major concerns relates to the use of human embryos (with the potential to develop into a human) in such research. A ban is only going to mean a spurt in it being conducted clandestinely—Nature reports that this is perhaps already under way, given the number of detailed research papers that scientific publications are receiving. More important, a strident anti-germline-editing environment would mean that debilitating genetic conditions, that have immense socio-economic costs for governments and the afflicted and their families, can’t be forestalled. Ideally, regulations defining the scope of germline editing should suffice, but given how existing ones are circumvented, perhaps a better idea would be to adopt a case-by-case approval method with the condition of prospective demonstration of safety and the upholding of ethics.

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