Public opinion should help guide the future use of gene editing to alter the DNA of human embryos and their offspring, according to a new survey of researchers.

Most of 300 cardiovascular researchers surveyed — 72 percent — oppose germline gene editing without public input, finds a survey published Tuesday in the American Heart Association journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Genetics.

Germline gene editing refers to inserting or deleting tiny snips of DNA in specific genes of human eggs, sperm or human embryos. Because DNA contains the code for every cell in the body, these genetic alterations are permanent. Offspring would then pass along the edited version of the genes to their own offspring.

Recent scientific advances have made germline gene editing more precise and less costly, which may lead to future cures for devastating genetic illnesses.

However, risks posed by the technology include the unintentional alteration of other genes and the complex ethical question of changing the genes of all future generations, said Kiran Musunuru, M.D., Ph.D., lead author of the survey and an associate professor of cardiovascular medicine and genetics at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

To explore which uses of germline gene editing are more acceptable than others, he recommends public surveys, hearings and focus groups.

Treating fatal illnesses may be more acceptable than creating “super-babies” with superior looks, athletic ability or intelligence. For example, 80 percent of researchers in the survey support gene editing to prevent serious diseases in adults, but not to make such enhancements.

Musunuru said it’s also important to get input from patient advocate groups for the childhood illnesses affected, religious groups and medical ethicists.

Government regulators and legislators will have the final word on germline gene editing, he said.

Musunuru compares the current debate with a previous medical controversy — in vitro fertilization. A generation after being introduced, IVF is now a commonly accepted practice, and he suspects the same may be true one day for germline gene editing.

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