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License Sought to Genetically Modify Human Embryos

This research will improve embryo development after in vitro fertilization. (Image: scienceatcal.berkley.edu)
This research will improve embryo development after in vitro fertilization. (Image: scienceatcal.berkley.edu)

Researchers from the newly opened Francis Crick Institute in London, have applied to the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA) to genetically modify human embryos. If successful it would be the first time a national regulatory body has granted approval.

The Francis Crick Institute said in a statement: “If the application for the license was successful, researchers could attempt to understand what is involved in the early stages of human development, by genetically modifying human embryos.”

Dr Kathy Niakan, a group leader at the Crick said: “To provide further fundamental insights into early human development, we are proposing to test the function of genes using gene editing, and transfected approaches that are currently permitted under the HFE Act 2008.”

Watch this video about United Kingdom scientists who are seeking a license to genetically modify human embryos:

According to local regulatory body, the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA), the request will be “considered in due course.”

It was only a few months ago that researchers in China admitted to having altered the genes of human embryos in an attempt to eliminate a genetic blood-disorder. While it is illegal in most parts of the world to change embryo genes for therapeutic purposes, it is still possible in the UK with approval from the HFEA.

Dr Kathy Niakan, a group leader at the Crick, says her research will “improve embryo development after in vitro fertilization (IVF), and might provide better clinical treatments for infertility.”

“We also propose to use new methods based on CRIPSR/Cas9, which allows very specific alterations to be made to the genome. By applying more precise, and efficient methods in our research we hope to require fewer embryos, and be more successful than the other methods currently used.”

The embryos that the researchers are intending to use are donated by couples who have excess embryos during IVF.

More importantly these embryos will not be allowed to grown to term.

They are to be simply used to study the early stages of embryonic development, and are then to be destroyed.

“In line with HFEA regulations, any donated embryos would be used for research purposes only. These embryos would be donated by informed consent, and surplus to IVF treatment,” Niakan said.

The main concern is if these embryos were to grow to term, all their new traits would be heritable (designer babies). This would mean the researchers have crossed a big ethical boundary. This is a major reason that an outright ban has already been put in place in the United States.

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