By Kate Kelland
LONDON (Reuters) - Scientists should be allowed to genetically modify human embryos because such experiments are essential to deepen understanding of basic biology, an international group of science and ethics experts said on Thursday.
A report by the Hinxton Group, a global network of stem cell researchers, bioethicists and science policy and publishing experts, said being able to edit the genetic code of human embryos was of tremendous value to research.
It added, however, that allowing genetically modified embryos to be used in clinical settings where they would go on to be born as GM babies was, for now, a step too far.
"We believe that while this technology has tremendous value to basic research and enormous potential... it is not sufficiently developed to consider human genome editing for clinical reproductive purposes at this time," they said in a statement.
Scientists are currently debating the potential future use of new genetic technology that has the potential to create "designer babies" - a concept widely viewed with disapproval.
The technology, called CRISPR-Cas9, allows scientists to edit virtually any gene they target, including in human embryos, enabling them to find and change or replace genetic defects.
Chinese biologists triggered an international furor this year when they reported carrying out the first experiment to edit the DNA of human embryos.
Many scientists argue its potential to drive medical advances and help cure devastating diseases outweighs concerns about its potential abuse by people wishing to create so-called "designer babies".
But critics say once the technology is allowed for research purposes, it is inevitable it will end up creating a market for enhanced, genetically modified babies.
Debra Mathews of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics in the United States and a lead member of the Hinxton Group, noted in a statement that there is "controversy and deep moral disagreement about human germline genetic modification".
"What is needed is not to stop all discussion, debate and research," she said, "but rather to engage with the public, policymakers and the broader scientific community and to weigh together the potential benefits and harms of human genome editing for research and human health."
(Editing by Ralph Boulton)