Sir Venki Ramakrishnan says risks and benefits of germline therapy, which is banned in Britain, should be debated
The genetic engineering of humans has great potential to help those destined to inherit serious, incurable diseases, according to one of Britain’s most prominent scientists, who says the risks and benefits should be debated by society.
The invention of powerful new genome editing tools means researchers can now make precise changes to genetic material, and so consider correcting faulty DNA in human sperm, eggs and embryos.
While the procedure may prevent children from being born with serious disorders, the practice – known as “germline therapy” – is banned in Britain and many other countries, because the genetic changes would be passed down to future generations and the risks are largely unknown.
“There is great potential in germline therapy. There are clearly diseases that you could help by editing the germline,” said Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, who won the Nobel prize in chemistry in 2009 and became president of the Royal Society in December. “This is a case of a new technology where there are significant potential benefits, but also significant ethical implications.”
In a wide-ranging interview with the Guardian, Ramakrishnan, said the risks and benefits of the procedure, which would create the first genetically modified humans if given the green light, should be thrashed out in discussions that involve people from all walks of life.
“It’s definitely a major step, there’s no getting around that. That’s why it’s important to really slow down and not rush any decisions,” he said. “What we need is a diverse and transparent group of people to really come together and get to grips with how do we go about using this tool and are there red lines. They may well decide there are red lines we shouldn’t cross.
“The concern I have is the same as with any other technology, which is that once a technology is feasible, we may well regulate it, but someone somewhere may start using it in ways we consider unethical,” he added.
At a landmark meeting in Washington DC in December, scientists decided not to impose their own global ban on modifying human embryos destined to become people, but stated that to do so would be unacceptable given the unknown risks today. If proved safe, the therapy could potentially prevent devastating conditions from being passed on. It might also be used to reduce people’s risk of diseases such as cancer and dementia.
Recently, the Royal Society published a document on the more familiar area of GM crops. According to GM Plants: Questions and Answers, half of the UK population do not feel well informed about GM crops, and a further 6% have never heard of them. The document lists common questions raised about GM crops, and provides answers from a group of experts convened by the society.
“We wanted to provide the background and facts about some of the most important questions people have on GM crops,” Ramakrishnan said.
Crops that are modified to resist pests, to grow in harsh conditions and to contain more nutrients may become increasingly important as the world’s population grows, Ramakrishnan said. “If we have better tools at our disposal, should we use them or not? It’s a question society has to decide.” According to the World Bank, the world will need to produce 50% more food to feed the population in 2050.
In 2015, GM crops were grown in 28 countries and on 180m hectares, the equivalent of seven times the land area of the UK. But in the same year, more than half of the EU officially banned farmers from growing GM crops, including Germany and France, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The bans were imposed despite EU regulators finding that GM crops pose no risk to health or the environment.
Ramakrishnan argues that crops should not be judged on whether they are GM or not. “GM as a technique is no more dangerous than any other agricultural technique. What most scientists believe is that any new crop we introduce needs to be tested on a case-by-case basis according to its traits, not how it was produced,” he said.
In the EU, as in other countries, opposition to GM crops began when multinational corporations tried to bring them to market. Among the concerns raised by environmental groups and NGOs was the risk that large companies might monopolise agriculture and wield too much power over growers. “I can understand how a backlash happened against GM,” Ramakrishnan said. “But the solution is not to ban GM, it’s to take it out of the hands of a few corporations.”
European countries need to do more to base their policy decisions on scientific evidence, the scientist said. He added that, personally, he wanted Britain to remain in the EU. He was concerned that a Brexit might weaken the EU economy and cause needless financial disruption.
Ramakrishnan, the son of two scientists, also saw other advantages to staying in. He was born in India, spent time in Australia, worked in the US, and moved to Britain 17 years ago. Mobility matters, he said.
“By being part of the EU, a young Briton can think of the whole of Europe as their home. And that is important, because by broadening people’s horizons, you maximize their opportunities. In an increasingly global world, we need to expand our horizons, not retreat inwards.”