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Tom Shakespeare discusses the ethics of gene editing

Advances in gene editing technology mean that it is now primed to be used with humans and very important ethical issues must be considered.

Advances in gene editing technology mean that it is now primed to be used with humans, and very important ethical issues must be considered before these approaches can be used widely.

Here, Fraser MacMillan, one of the lead educators on this FutureLearn course, discusses this topic with Prof Tom Shakespeare, an expert in bioethics. Previously of the Norwich Medical School, University of East Anglia, Prof Shakespeare now works at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Their discussion focuses on several important points, which were discussed in a recent report from the Nuffield Council on Bioethics. Part of the conclusions from this report state:

‘Of all the potential applications of genome editing that have been discussed, the one that has consistently generated most controversy is the genetic alteration of human embryos in vitro. Research undoubtedly has a very long way to go before any application of this sort could be contemplated and, in the UK at least, the transfer of an edited embryo to a woman is currently prohibited by law. Nevertheless, such applications are theoretically possible and there are strong moral arguments for them, at least for limited purposes, as well as against. The principal challenges are the very difficult questions of what would be required to demonstrate safety and efficacy, and of resolving the ethical arguments for and against attempting it. It is therefore appropriate to consider carefully how to respond to this possibility before it becomes a practical choice. Addressing these difficult questions now will help to meet concerns that technology is rushing ahead of public debate and allow such debate to influence the development of the technology, distinguish acceptable from unacceptable aims, and reduce the uncertainty and ambiguity for researchers and potential recipients of the technology.’

In considering how these gene editing techniques might be used with humans it is appropriate to highlight that they can lead to changes in germline DNA or in the DNA of somatic tissues. Germline DNA changes will be hereditary and affect the genome of all cells in the person and in their offspring. By contrast, mutations to the DNA of somatic cells will usually be limited to specific tissues and they will not be passed on to future generations.

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Biochemistry: the Molecules of Life

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