Ethical Restraints Being Brushed Aside, Observer Warns

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LONDON, DEC. 10, 2000 (
A technique for genetically altering sperm to prevent children from inheriting unwanted characteristics from their fathers has been patented by Lord Winston, Britain´s leading fertility expert, The Sunday Times reported today.

The technique, developed by Winston in collaboration with researchers in California, involves modification of a man´s germ line cells, which generate sperm, thus determining the traits passed to his offspring, the newspaper said.

Although the intention is to use it to eliminate fatal diseases such as cystic fibrosis, critics fear it could be misappropriated to create designer babies.

Phillip Koeffler, a co-worker at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, admitted: «This does provide the capability of making designer babies, and it will be up to society to decide what to do with it.»

Carol Readhead, a biologist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, who has collaborated with Winston on research, said the technology could also be used to create transgenic animals — those carrying human genes, which could become a source of human donor organs, the London newspaper said. But she agreed the main use would be in man: «It is a difficult subject, a question which will come up again and again in the new century.»

David King, a former geneticist who now leads the Campaign Against Human Genetic Engineering, condemned the technique, which he said would create a social gulf by conferring another advantage on the rich. «The commercial motive will mean ethical restraints are brushed aside,» he said, according to The Sunday Times.

Although most of the research was done in America, Winston has obtained grant funding from the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, to carry out some of the work at the Hammersmith hospital, west London, the newspaper said.

The controversial technique involves injecting genetic material directly into the testicle, using a virus to carry it directly into the developing germ cells, the paper said. The current method, banned in Britain, involves injecting DNA into embryos during test-tube procedures. A parliamentary debate next week is expected to lift that moratorium.

Winston´s work does not contravene this law because it is using only sperm cells, which on their own do not have the capacity to become babies, the newspaper added.

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