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Tuesday, 19 September, 2000, 13:25 GMT 14:25 UK
Scientists oppose human gene modification
Baby in cot BBC
Some fear the creation of "designer babies"
The modification of human genes to determine the fate of future generations is not yet safe and should not be undertaken, says a report by the world's largest federation of scientists.

A working group of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has concluded that human trials of this kind of gene therapy, designed to eliminate inherited genetic disorders, should not occur until stringent standards are in place.

The report highlighted recent successes in treating certain diseases with what is known as somatic gene therapy, which deals only with genes that cannot be inherited.

But the AAAS said it would be irresponsible at present to use such techniques to treat inherited genetic diseases because of the risk of introducing new genetic problems that could be passed on to children.

"IGM [inheritable genetic modifications] utilising current methods for somatic gene transfer cannot presently be carried out responsibly to humans," the report's co-author Dr Mark Frankel said in a statement.

Moral dilemmas

The issue also raises ethical and religious, as well as medical questions, the scientists said.

"IGM might change attitudes toward the human person, the nature of human reproduction, and parent-child relationships," they reported.

And the panel expressed concern that techniques developed for therapeutic purposes could be used to enhance human characteristics such as height or memory.

But groups representing families affected by genetic disorders said the approach should not be ruled out altogether.

"Some families feel psychologically they would like to remove the risk of passing on a disease entirely from themselves and future generations," said John Gillott of the Genetic Interest Group (GIG), an umbrella group for families and individuals affected by genetic disorders in the UK.

"There are some people who say we should never do this, from an ethical point of view it is wrong to tamper with the genes of future generations," he told BBC News Online.

"But GIG has never taken that view - we've always said that while it shouldn't be done at the moment for safety and technical reasons, it should be left open as a possibility at some point in the future."

'Bubble' babies

Gene therapy has been dogged by controversy over fears that patients in the US were harmed by the experimental treatment.

But scientists recently reported the first apparently successful gene therapy treatment for an immune disorder called Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (Scid).

Scid babies are usually forced to live in sterile "bubbles" because their immune systems cannot combat disease.

Current gene therapy trials involve correction of genes contained in existing mature body cells, such as bone marrow, rather than reproductive cells.

But research carried out in animals suggests that in theory it might one day be possible to free families of inherited genetic disorders by modifying genes in a patient's sperm or eggs.

But this has raised fears that the practice could be used to produce a new generation of "designer children".

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27 Apr 00 | Sci/Tech
Gene therapy frees 'bubble babies'
21 Apr 99 | Health
Gene repair breakthrough
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