The use of gene editing technologies to alter the DNA of human embryos could be morally permissible as long as the science and its impact on society is carefully considered, a British ethics panel said on Tuesday.
Experts from the UK's Nuffield Council on Bioethics said that while the law should not currently be changed to allow human genome editing to correct genetic faults in offspring, future legislation permitting it should not be ruled out.
The council - an independent body which examines ethical issues raised by new developments in biology and medicine - also urged scientists and ethics experts in the United States, China, Europe and elsewhere to engage as early as possible in public debate about what human genome editing might mean.
The possibilities raised by gene editing tools could represent a "radical new approach to reproductive choices", the council said in a report and could have significant implications for individuals and for society.
"There must be action now to support public debate and to put in place appropriate governance."
Genome editing techniques such as such as CRISPR/Cas9 enable the deliberate alteration of a targeted DNA sequence in a living cell. They could, in theory, be used in assisted human reproduction to edit the DNA of an embryo before it is transferred to the womb.
British law bans this at the moment, but the Nuffield panel of experts said it could, in time, become available as an option for parents wanting to influence the genetic characteristics of their future child - for example, to edit out a heritable disease or a predisposition to cancer in later life.
"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 council's report added that if that is to happen, a number of stringent measures would first need to be put in place to ensure that genome editing proceeds in ways that are ethically acceptable.
It proposed that for gene editing techniques in human reproduction to be ethically acceptable, two overarching principles should guide their use - that they should be intended to secure the welfare of the future person, and should not increase disadvantage, discrimination or division in society.
Commenting on the report, Fiona Watt, a professor and executive chair of Britain's Medical Research Council, welcomed its call for wide debate and said it was vital that researchers "continue to assess safety and feasibility before gene edits that can be passed across generations are permitted in people."
But David King of the UK campaign group Human Genetics Alert said the report's conclusions were a sign of approval of designer babies and were "an absolute disgrace".
"We must have an international ban on creating genetically engineered babies," he said in an emailed statement.