The Anscombe Bioethics Centre denounced "yet more destructive experimentation on human embryos"

A Catholic bioethics institute has accused the British government of moving toward the creation of genetically modified babies after scientists were given permission to alter the DNA of embryos in experimentation.

The Anscombe Bioethics Centre, an Oxford-based institute serving the Catholic Church in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, denounced the development as “yet more destructive experimentation on human embryos.”

“Experiments to edit the genes of human embryos represent a further step towards the creation of GM babies,” David Jones, director of Anscombe, said yesterday.

“This move is only the latest step after attempts to clone human embryos, to create human-animal hybrid embryos and to create three parent embryos,” he said in a statement sent to Catholic News Service.

“Each step has been accompanied by exaggerated promises to cure or prevent diseases, but the real result is simply more unethical experimentation on human beings at the earliest stage of their development,” Jones added.

He said gene editing would be legitimate “only where it is safe and beneficial for the individual patient and not where it aims to affect future generations.”

“The real promise of ‘gene editing’ techniques is the hope of ethical and effective therapy of children or adults who were born with conditions that currently have no cure,” he continued. “Research should focus on development of safe and effective somatic gene therapy, not on yet-more-destructive experimentation on human embryos.”

Jones’ comments came in response to an announcement yesterday that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, the regulatory body overseeing in vitro fertilisation and experiments on human embryos, will permit researchers at the Francis Crick Institute in London to modify the DNA of newly conceived embryos.

The scientists aim to use a technique to turn off genes in one-day-old embryos to determine how such intervention will effect development in the week that follows as the embryo multiplies from a single cell to about 250 cells.

The purpose is to identify the roles of particular genes in the hope of improving in vitro fertilisation success rates and to try to reduce the number of miscarriages. All embryos used during experiments must be destroyed within a week.

China has previously attempted to edit the human germline, but the decision by the HFEA makes Britain the first country in the world to set up a regulatory framework for undertaking such research.

Paul Nurse, director of the Crick, said in a statement yesterday posted on the institute’s website that he was delighted that the research could go ahead.

He said that it was “important for understanding how a healthy human embryo develops and will enhance our understanding of IVF success rates.”

The embryos that will be used have been created for in vitro fertilisation but are surplus to the requirements of the parents, who have given permission for their use in experimentation.

The first research programme is expected to begin “within the next few months,” according to the institute’s statement.