Genetically modified human embryos allowed by landmark ruling

Nancy W Mendoza

Scientists have been allowed to genetically modify human embryos, making the UK the first country to officially approve this practice.

Despite ethical concerns, the Francis Crick Institute in London will alter the DNA of human embryos in order to gain a better understanding of the genes that control early embryo development. This is thanks to a ruling by the UK’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA).

This work could give people answers to why they are experiencing infertility or frequent miscarriage. But opponents say it is sending us down a slippery slope towards designer babies.

Dr Kathy Niakan, who will carry out the research, told Reuters that she won’t be seeking to create babies with altered genes. In fact, the experiments, which will use embryos left over from IVF treatment, only look at the very earliest development of an embryo. Once the embryo has reached the stage of 200-300 cells, it would be destroyed, according to the terms of the HFEA licence.

For couples who experience infertility or frequent early miscarriages, this could be the answer to an emotionally devastating problem.

This news comes less than a year after Chinese scientists reported that they had used the Crispr-Cas9 gene editing technique – which Niakan will also use – on human embryos.

Prof Robin Lovell-Badge, a scientific advisor to the HFEA, told the BBC: “China has guidelines, but it is often unclear exactly what they are until you’ve done it and stepped over an unclear boundary.

“This is the first time it has gone through a properly regulatory system and been approved.”

Top journal editor, Philip Campbell, is reported to have said that his group of journals, the Nature titles, have rejected papers that report this type of research because of “non-compliance with local regulations”.

So, it seems the scientific establishment has perhaps denied Chinese scientists a platform on which to promote research involving genetic modification of human embryos. It remains to be seen whether this is enough to prevent unregulated use of the Crispr-Cas9 technique to create genetically altered humans, though.

Global opinions on genetically modified human embryos remains split. An international summit in Washington DC last December did not conclude that human gene editing should not be allowed but it cautioned that ethical and safety issues should be dealt with before considering clinical applications.

Niakan’s research could potentially lead to clinical applications in the treatment of infertility but at the moment the HFEA licence does not permit this.

Slippery slope, or the start of an exciting new paradigm in human health research, this is certainly groundbreaking news for the future of scientific endeavor.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

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