An independent ethics panel in the UK has concluded that genome editing to influence the characteristics of a future person could be “morally permissible”.

However, there would need to be a number of measures put in place to ensure that genetic editing “proceeds in ways that are ethically acceptable,” the inquiry, by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, concluded.

Genome editing is not currently lawful in the UK (unless for research purposes), but the practice could theoretically be offered in future to parents wishing to change the genetic characteristics of their future child, such as excluding an heritable disease or a predisposition to cancer in later life.

The Council stressed the possibilities this raises could have “significant implications for individuals and for all of society”, and before the law so there must be action now “to support public debate and to put in place appropriate governance”.

It recommends that two overarching principles should be adhered to when considering use of heritable genome editing interventions in order for them be ethically acceptable: they must be intended to secure the welfare of the future person; and they should not increase disadvantage, discrimination or division in society.

The Council also said the practice should only be permitted after a “broad and inclusive public debate” on its potential use and implications, further research to establish standards of clinical safety, and an assessment of the risks to individuals, groups and society as a whole.

“Huge advances are happening in genomics research, and whilst we have to acknowledge that genes alone do not shape a person, the possibility of using genome editing in reproduction to secure or avoid a characteristic in a child offers a radically new approach that is likely to appeal to some prospective parents,” Professor Dave Archard, chair of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics.

“There may be good reasons for allowing some parental preferences to be met, but we need to be careful that the use of genome editing to help parents to exercise these preferences doesn’t increase social disadvantage, discrimination or division and that close attention is paid to the welfare of those involved, especially any child born as a result.”

The field has long been surrounded by controversy, with critics fearing that gene-editing could be used to create a generation of so-called ‘designer’ babies.