sleeping baby
© G. Lenz/ Global Look Press
Genetically modifying an embryo's DNA to prevent heritable diseases could be "ethically acceptable", a landmark report has claimed. Critics, however, say it would pave the way for 'designer babies'.

The Nuffield Council of Bioethics, an independent charitable body investigating the ethics of certain biological and medical developments, said in a report that while it does not support overhauling current legislation so that embryo gene editing can be carried out, it does not mean the UK should fall short of doing so in the future.

"Whilst there is still uncertainty over the sorts of things genome editing might be able to achieve, or how widely its use might spread, we have concluded that the potential use of genome editing to influence the characteristics of future generations is not unacceptable in itself," said Karen Yeung, a professor of law, ethics and informatics at Britain's Birmingham University, who chaired the panel.

The body did stress, however, that gene editing may only be possible with consideration of two overarching principles: that the procedure be carried out to "secure the welfare" of the individual involved, and only in circumstances were it cannot be expected to trigger social division.

But the report was shot down by some who claim it risks paving the way for the approval of so-called 'designer babies'. Commenting on the council's review of genome editing, Dr David King, Director of Human Genetics Alert, described its findings as "an absolute disgrace", noting decades-long international bans on eugenic genetic engineering.

"But this group of scientists thinks it knows better, even though there is absolutely no medical benefit to this whatever," King told the BBC. "The Nuffield Council doesn't even bother to say no to outright designer babies. The people of Britain decided 15 years ago that they don't want GM food. Do you suppose they want GM babies?"