This essay appears in today’s edition of the Fortune Brainstorm Health Daily. Get it delivered straight to your inbox.
As 2016 draws to a close, there’s plenty to look back on in the world of the life sciences and health care. Controversies over drug pricing and wide-scale investigations into illegal collusion rocked the world of big pharma; insurers and hospitals are grappling with the reality of a Donald Trump administration, and what it might mean for their patients and bottom lines; and, oh, there was also some pretty special science inching closer to the marketplace, including the advent of the first CRISPR gene-editing clinical trials in humans.
For all the political anxieties and legitimate scandals to hit the sector, it’s that kind of biopharma innovation that will continue to change the face of medical care and human life itself in the years and decades to come. And governments will have to catch up with a brave new world wherein we can modify genes and re-engineer basic biology.
The U.K. took just such a step on Thursday, officially sanctioning fertility clinics to become licensed practitioners of creating three-parent babies. The method can only be used in very specific circumstances in order to fight devastating mitochondrial disorders.
“Today’s historic decision means that parents at very high risk of having a child with a life-threatening mitochondrial disease may soon have the chance of a healthy, genetically related child,” said Sally Cheshire, chair of the U.K.’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), in a statement. “This is life-changing for those families.
The technique isn’t new, and neither is the U.K.’s decision to embrace it. Rather, it’s the final step in a regulatory process that has been taking shape over the last two years.
And this is, of course, controversial. Bioethicists and certain advocacy groups have warned that such technology can lead to a slippery slope with unknown consequences for future generations, and give rise to a Gattaca-like world of “designer babies.” U.S. lawmakers even felt compelled to establish legislation barring research “in which a human embryo is intentionally created or modified to include a heritable genetic modification.” But what’s clear is this: the future is here, whether we’re ready for it or not.