Genome editing survey: background information

Who are we and why are we running this survey?

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics is an independent organisation that exists to examine ethical questions in biology and medicine that may affect the public interest. Responses to this questionnaire will help us to understand the range of views that exists in society about how genome editing might be used. This understanding will inform the Council’s advice to policy makers, research funders, healthcare professionals and others. This advice is intended to contribute to the framing of laws and policies that will govern the future use of biological technologies. Further information about the Council and our work is available on this website.

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What do we mean by ‘genome editing’?

Almost every cell in your body contains a molecular thread that you inherited from your biological parents: DNA. The full complement of DNA in each cell is known as the genome.  Particular sections of the genome, known as genes, cause cells to produce corresponding proteins. These proteins, in turn, influence many human physical characteristics in a fundamental way. Small chemical differences in the genes account for many of the observable differences between people, such as differences in stature. In some cases, genetic variations can cause serious and life-limiting genetic conditions, such as Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD), a progressive, muscle-wasting disease which usually causes severe mobility impairment before adulthood and reduces life expectancy significantly.

Genome editing is a technique for making precisely targeted changes to the DNA that makes up the genome. (CRISPR-Cas9 is the name of a recently developed technique for genome editing.) Though not permitted under current UK law, in the future it may be possible to use such techniques to edit the genome of very early embryos that are created in the laboratory (by in vitro fertilisation, or IVF) before they are transferred to the prospective mother. The aim of this would be to change the characteristics of the resulting person, for example to prevent them being affected by a genetic disease that runs in their family.

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Nuffield Council on Bioethics
28 Bedford Square
London
WC1B 3JS

bioethics@nuffieldbioethics.org

+44 (0)20 7681 9619

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