Genetic modification of human embryos has officially been deemed as “essential” and should be allowed so scientists can better understand basic biology, according to a report.

A worldwide network of science and ethics experts, the Hinxton Group, has said gene editing of early stage embryos would be of “tremendous value” to scientific research and could have practical applications.

Scientist works with an embryo under a microscope
Working with embryos is a fiddly business (Ben Birchall/PA)

However, scientists can’t get too excited yet as the group added that the technology is not yet advanced enough to be used in the reproduction process, and there is still the ongoing issue that some find the concept of genetically modified babies “morally troubling”.

But the group warns it would be “dangerous” to prevent research in the area, and member and academic Sarah Chan said: “Genome editing technologies hold huge potential for advancing basic research and improving human health. The prospect that genome editing may one day be used to create genetically modified humans should not in itself be cause for concern, particularly where what is at stake is curing or preventing serious disease.

Human embryo suspended in fluid
Human embryo suspended in fluid (PA)

“It is clear that such applications raise different issues; more research is needed together with robust public discussion, but restricting research because of concerns that reproductive application is premature and dangerous will ensure that it remains forever premature and dangerous.”

Previous genetic engineering projects have faced objections, despite benefits they could bring to medicine. Earlier this year, a molecular cut-and-paste technique used by Chinese scientists to edit a problem gene causing a potentially fatal inherited blood disorder led to calls for a worldwide ban on creating “designer babies”.

Protesters believe creation of "designer babies" should be banned (Andrew Matthews/PA)
Protesters believe creation of “designer babies” should be banned (Andrew Matthews/PA)

Among the medical applications outlined in this report are the potential ability to correct mutations which cause disease or changes to prevent possible disease – but some enhancements were labelled “more contentious than others”.

In a statement backed by 22 members, the group said: “We believe that while this technology has tremendous value to basic research and enormous potential for somatic clinical uses, it is not sufficiently developed to consider human genome editing for clinical reproductive purposes at this time.

“Given all safety, efficacy and governance needs are met, there may be morally acceptable uses of this technology in human reproduction, though further substantial discussion and debate will be required.”

Protester holds sign to promote scientific advances
Debate over use of human embryos for medical testing will be heavy on both sides (Edmond Terakopian/PA)

Senior member Robin Lovell-Badge, head of the laboratory of stem cell biology and developmental genetics at the Francis Crick Institute in London, said: “Much of our knowledge of early development comes from studies of mouse embryos, yet it is becoming clear that gene activity and even some cell types are very different in human embryos.

“Understanding gained from genome editing techniques could lead to improvements in IVF and reduced implantation failure, using treatments that do not involve genome editing.”

New baby born through IVF
Improvements to IVF success is one advance that could come from testing human embryos (Peter Byrne/PA)

But the notion is still a problem for even some scientists to get their heads around.

Professor Emmanuelle Charpentier, one of those behind the development of the CRISPR/Cas9 DNA editing technique, said: “Personally, I don’t think it is acceptable to manipulate the human germline for the purpose of changing some genetic traits that will be transmitted over generations.

“I just have a problem right now with regard to the manipulation of the human germlines.”