A U.S. research group has created what appears to be the world's first genetically modified human embryo, crossing an ethical boundary that until now has been observed by scientists around the world. The experiment, briefly described in a scientific journal several months ago, made news around the world this week after stories appeared in the Sunday Times (UK), the Associated Press, and the New York Times.
Although this kind of experiment has been technically feasible for the past couple decades, no previous attempts to genetically manipulate human embryos are known. The researchers at New York's Cornell University were surely aware that transferring genes into a human embryo would raise eyebrows and concerns. But they nonetheless decided to proceed, and did so almost casually, without public consultation or discussion.
Dr. David King, director of the British public-interest organization Human Genetics Alert, discovered the short account of their effort only recently, and brought it to the attention of the Sunday Times. In a May 11 press statement [PDF], King calls on the UK government to halt its plans to legalize GM embryos [PDF] in the Human Fertilization and Embryology Bill, currently being debated in Parliament.
The Human Genetics Alert statement includes critical comments by Dr. Richard Nicholson, editor of the Bulletin of Medical Ethics; Dr. Stuart Newman, Professor of Cell Biology and Anatomy at New York Medical College; the ETC Group; and the Center for Genetics and Society. It calls for an international moratorium on the creation of GM human embryos until there has been a full debate.
One of the research group's members has told reporters that the experimenters are not interested in using genetically modified embryos for reproduction. "None of us wants to make designer babies," Dr. Zev Rosenwaks, director of the Center for Reproductive Medicine and Infertility at New York-Presbyterian / Weill Cornell Medical Center, told the Associated Press.
Rosenwaks' disavowal of designer babies is welcome. The controversy surrounding this experiment provides an opportunity for him and other scientists to voice their support for policies that will allow beneficial human biotech research to proceed while prohibiting socially dangerous applications. There's no need to reinvent the wheel in order to accomplish this, since such policies have already been adopted by more than forty countries.