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It sounds like science fiction - making genetically modified babies who could pass down their new genes to future generations. But it would be acceptable for scientists to do it under some circumstances. So say the National Academy of Science and the National Academy of Medicine in a highly anticipated report that was released today. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein has the details.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Scientists have been allowed to tinker with human DNA for decades, but there's always been one thing that's been considered taboo. Never try to make a baby from sperm, eggs or embryos that have had their genes edited because those changes would be passed down for generations to come. Alta Charo is a bioethicist at the University of Wisconsin.
ALTA CHARO: In the past, it was never seriously considered permissible.
STEIN: For lots of reasons. Something could go wrong and accidentally create some new disease that would become a permanent part of the human genetic code or alter the course of human evolution in some unexpected ways. But recently, scientists created new ways to edit DNA.
CHARO: It made it much faster, much easier, much less expensive to do genome editing. And suddenly many different applications were suddenly possible, and it began to raise questions about whether and how to use the technology in human medical treatment.
STEIN: Including whether to try to edit the genes in human sperm, eggs or embryos to prevent babies from being born with a long list of terrible diseases. So the national academies put together a big committee to study this question. Today they released their decision. Charo co-chaired that committee.
CHARO: The committee says this. It is not ready now, but it might be safe enough to try in the future. And if certain conditions are met, it would be, from our point of view, permissible to try it.
STEIN: Those conditions include a long list of things. There's strong evidence it's safe. It could only be tried to prevent serious diseases like Huntington's, the fatal brain disorder. And there have to be a lot of safeguards to make sure nothing goes wrong.
CHARO: If they could all be met - and we mean all of them, not just some - then we conclude it would be permissible to begin clinical trials.
STEIN: And Charo stresses it could not be tried to create so-called designer babies where parents pick and choose the traits of their children to make them taller or stronger or smarter or better athletes or anything like that.
CHARO: We said, use it for serious diseases and serious conditions only - period.
STEIN: Many scientists are praising the report. Eric Lander runs the Broad Institute in Boston.
ERIC LANDER: It's important to be extraordinarily cautious on technologies that could leave a permanent mark on the human population for all generations to come. But it's important to be considering things that can help people. And I think they've been very thoughtful about how you should balance those things.
STEIN: But some say the line between preventing disease and creating genetically enhanced people will be hard to define. George Church is a prominent geneticist at Harvard.
GEORGE CHURCH: The definition of prevention of disease is very clearly broad. It could include a lot of things that some people will consider enhancement.
STEIN: And that's what makes some people very nervous.
MARCY DARNOVSKY: I don't think there's any way to keep that genie in the bottle once you've approved it for anything.
STEIN: Marcy Darnovsky is with the genetic watchdog group Genetics and Society.
DARNOVSKY: You know, these kinds of scenarios used to be science fiction, and they used to be seen as far-off hypotheticals. But actually right now, I think they're urgent social justice questions.
STEIN: Questions like whether the world's existing inequalities would only get worse.
DARNOVSKY: The perception that some children are genetically improved could lead us into a society that we would really not want to live in.
STEIN: At the moment, the federal government can't fund any research that would create genetically modified human embryos or approve any experiments to do so. Rob Stein, NPR News, Washington.
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