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Scientists should hold off on experiments that could permanently alter people’s DNA and pass the changes along to future generations, the White House said Tuesday.

It will take years of experiments – generations, even – to fully understand the effects of such changes, even if they are made with the intent of curing inherited disease, the White House chief science adviser says in a blog posting.

“The Administration believes that altering the human germline for clinical purposes is a line that should not be crossed at this time,” Dr. John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, says in the post.

The National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine (formerly the Institute of Medicine) said last week they’d hold an international meeting this fall for discussion of the issue. Such genetic engineering techniques are called germline editing, meaning they could alter DNA that is passed from parent to child.

Genetic engineering is generally hit and miss now and experiments that could permanently alter someone’s DNA are far away. But Chinese scientists caused a furor earlier this year when they said they’d tried one technique on human embryos.

“Research along these lines raises serious and urgent questions about the potential implications for clinical applications that could lead to genetically altered humans. The full implications of such a step could not be known until a number of generations had inherited the genetic changes made — and choices made in one country could affect all of us,” Holdren writes.

One hope for germline editing would be to cure inherited diseases such as cystic fibrosis or Huntington’s disease, changing the gene forever so parents do not pass the mutation to their children. But Holdren argues that the unknown side-effects could be dangerous.

“The advances in health technology over the past century — vaccines, antibiotics, early disease diagnostics, and treatment for countless health conditions — have reduced infant mortality, extended life expectancy, and alleviated suffering for millions,” Holdren writes.

“It is important that the NAS’ international summit fully explore the implications of germline editing for the current generation and generations to come across the globe, as well as the potential for alternative technologies that do not require germline alteration to deliver similar medical promise.”

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-- Maggie Fox