PEOPLE should not be concerned that editing the genome – one of the building blocks of life – could one day be used to create genetically modified humans, especially as curing or preventing serious disease could be at stake, according to a leading academic.

Sarah Chan, a fellow at Edinburgh University, is a member of the influential Hinxton Group, a worldwide network of experts in science and ethics which has claimed the genetic modification of human embryos is “essential”.

The group said the process should be allowed so scientists could better understand basic biology, that it would be of “tremendous value” to scientific research and could have practical applications. However, its report said the technology was not yet advanced enough to be used in the reproduction process.

Chan, from the university’s Usher Institute for Population Health Sciences and Informatics, told The National: “We have to remember there are risks of doing, as well as risks of not doing.

“It’s very clear that genome-editing technologies have huge potential for use in research to improve our understanding of basic human biology, of development and disease, and that there is also the potential for their use in therapy.

“If we turn away from research at this point because we think that clinical applications are too dangerous, we are foregoing all the potential benefits and that is in itself a form of harm.”

The Hinxton report acknowledged that some may find the notion of genetically modified babies “morally troubling”, in particular engineered DNA, which could be inherited by future generations through germline genes passed on by eggs and sperm.

Chan said she understood the sentiment but added: “Unease is not a reason to stop all research and unease to me is a reason to pursue discussion, and to explore its sources and see whether they can be addressed.

“Genome-editing technologies hold huge potential for advancing basic research and improving human health. The prospect that genome editing may one day be used to create genetically modified humans should not in itself be cause for concern, particularly where what is at stake is curing or preventing serious disease.

“Restricting research because of concerns that reproductive application is premature and dangerous will ensure that it remains forever premature and dangerous, for want of better knowledge.” Earlier this year, Chinese scientists used a molecular cut-and-paste technique to edit a problem gene that caused a potentially fatal inherited blood disorder. But the move was met with calls for a worldwide ban on the creation of “designer babies”.

The new report outlined possible clinical applications, including correcting mutations which cause disease, or changes to prevent possible disease, but it acknowledged that some enhancements “may be more contentious than others”.

A statement from Hinxton’s 22 members said: “We believe that while this technology has tremendous value to basic research and enormous potential for somatic clinical uses, it is not sufficiently developed to consider human genome editing for clinical reproductive purposes at this time.

“Given all safety, efficacy and governance needs are met, there may be morally acceptable uses of this technology in human reproduction, though further substantial discussion and debate will be required.” Chan said techniques to change genetic sequences had been around for “quite some time”, but where new genome-editing techniques differed was in their precision, accuracy and efficiency.

While they had been seen in the past as “too risky to be used in humans”, new technologies offered the possibility that they could be used in such applications.

“Technologies such as CRISPR and Cas9 have been likened to a pair of molecular scissors that only cuts the DNA in a certain place,” said Chan. “This means that we can target genetic changes much more precisely.”

She added that she hoped the technologies would be used in the “foreseeable future”.

However, Professor Emmanuelle Charpentier, one of those behind the development of the CRISPR/Cas9 technique, said: “Personally, I don’t think it is acceptable to manipulate the human germline for the purpose of changing some genetic traits that will be transmitted over generations.”