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You could soon be able to make changes to your unborn child’s genes

Scientists are now able to make specific changes to the genetic makeup, also called the genotype, of living organisms.

Picture: Supplied.

CAPE TOWN - Imagine being able to choose the colour of your unborn child’s eyes or deciding whether they should feel physical pain or not.

The science of genetic editing has ushered in these possibilities but just how far is going too far for scientists.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently established the Advisory Board for Gene Editing, which will develop a framework for the extent to which this science can be applied.

Scientists are now able to make specific changes to the genetic makeup, also called the genotype, of living organisms.

This can be done either in embryonic phase or when they are adults.

The technique has the potential to cure someone that has sickle cell disease, a disorder that causes red blood cells to become misshapen and broken down.

Bioethics Associate Professor at the University of Cape Town Jantina de Vries said geneticists could edit the disease-causing mutation in a patient’s DNA so that they start to produce healthy, round blood cells.

“The technology is really new, so we don’t yet do this in practice. We mostly try to work around the needs of the living, currently testing how safe it is desirable, whether this is something we want to happen in our societies.”

De Vries, who's also part of the WHO Advisory Board for Gene Editing, said scientists needed to know exactly where the disease-causing component, or mutation, was located in the genetic sequence.

She used an example of a book with lots of typos to explain.

“If we know exactly that it is on page 36 on the third line, it is much easier for us to target that particular mutation and change it.”

Ethical questions now arise about whether or not changes should be made to the genetic composition during the early stages of an embryo's development.

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