By James Gallagher
Dr Tony Perry, a pioneer in cloning, has announced precise DNA editing at the moment of conception in mice. He said huge advances in the past two years meant “designer babies” were no longer HG Wells territory.
Other leading scientists and bioethicists argue it is time for a serious public debate on the issue. Designer babies – genetically modified for beauty, intelligence or to be free of disease – have long been a topic of science fiction.
Dr Perry, who was part of the teams to clone the first mice and pigs, said the prospect was still fiction, but science was rapidly catching up to make elements of it possible.
In the journal Scientific Reports, he details precisely editing the genome of mice at the point DNA from the sperm and egg come together.
Dr Perry, who is based at the University of Bath, told the BBC: “We used a pair of molecular scissors and a molecular sat-nav that tells the scissors where to cut.
It is the latest development of “Crispr technology” – which is a more precise way of editing DNA than anything that has come before.
It was named one of the top breakthroughs in 2013, hailed as the start of a new era of genetics and is being used in a wide-range of experiments in thousands of laboratories.
As well simply cutting the DNA to make mutations, as the Bath team have done, it is also possible to use the technology to insert new pieces of genetic code at the site of the cut.
It has reopened questions about genetically modifying people.
Prof Perry added: “On the human side, one has to be very cautious.
“There are heritable diseases coded by mutations in DNA and some people could say, ‘I don’t want my children to have these mutations.'”
This includes conditions such as cystic fibrosis and genes that increase the risk of cancer.
“There’s much speculation here, but it’s not completely fanciful, this is not HG Wells, you can imagine people doing this soon [in animals].
“At that time the HFEA [the UK’s fertility regulator] will need to be prepared because they’re going to have to deal with this issue.”
He said science existed as part of a wider community and that it was up to society as a whole to begin assessing the implications and decide what is acceptable.