Leading UK research funders are calling for an urgent national debate on the ethics of genetically modifying human embryos and other tissues to prevent serious diseases.

The plea has been prompted by scientists’ rapid progress in developing a powerful tool called genome editing, which has the potential to transform the treatment of genetic conditions by rewriting the DNA code of affected cells.

Although UK law bans genetic modification of embryos for clinical uses, it is permitted in research laboratories under licence from the fertility regulator, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) – provided the embryos are destroyed after 14 days.

In a position statement published on Wednesday, five leading biomedical funders declare support for genome-editing research and certain therapies that might follow, such as infusions of modified immune cells that are tailor-made to attack patients’ tumours.

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