A U.K. researcher will now become the first to alter the genes in a human embryo, using the precise, but still controversial gene-editing technology called CRISPR.
Developmental biologist, Dr. Kathy Niakan, of the Francis Crick Institute, has been approved by the U.K.’s Human Fertilization and Embryo Authority (HFEA) to renew her laboratory’s research license to include gene editing of embryos.
The aim of the research, led by Dr. Niakan, is to better understand the genes human embryos needed to develop successfully within the womb. The research will include looking at the first seven days of a fertilised egg from a single cell to around 250 cells.
Paul Nurse, director of the Crick, said in a statement:
“I am delighted that the HFEA has approved Dr. Niakan’s application. Dr. Niakan’s proposed research is important for understanding how a healthy human embryo develops, and will enhance our understanding of IVF success rates, by looking at the very earliest stage of human development — one to seven days.”
The HFEA did, however, added a condition to the license, noting that:
“No research using gene editing may take place until the research has received research ethics approval. As with all embryos used in research, it is illegal to transfer them to a woman for treatment.”
Within the HFEA minutes and inspection report, it states that: “The proposed use of CRISPR/Cas9 was considered by the Committee to offer better potential for success, and was a justified technical approach to obtaining research data about gene function from the embryos used.”
The researchers believe armed with the knowledge acquired from this research, scientists may be able to “improve embryo development after in vitro fertilisation (IVF),” and “provide better clinical treatments for infertility, using conventional medical methods.”
Robin Lovell-Badge, group leader at the Crick Institute, told TIME:
“I promise you she has no intention of the embryos ever being put back into a woman for development.
“That wouldn’t be the point. The point is to understand things about basic human biology. We know lots about how the early mouse embryo develops in terms of how various cell lineages give rise to the embryo or to [other] tissue that make up the placenta. But we know very little about how this happens in the human embryo.”
Upon hearing about the announcement, some experts were quick to weigh in. Here is what some of them had to say:
Prof. Darren Griffin, Professor of Genetics, University of Kent, said:
“The ruling by the HFEA is a triumph for common sense. While it is certain that the prospect of gene editing in human embryos raised a series of ethical issues and challenges, the problem has been dealt with in a balanced manner. It is clear that the potential benefits of the work proposed far outweigh the foreseen risks.
“It is a clear example how the U.K. leads the world not only in the science behind research into early human development, but also the social science used to regulate and monitor it.”
Ms. Sarah Norcross, Director of Progress Educational Trust, said:
“This decision by the HFEA is a victory for level-headed regulation over moral panic. The decision allows basic scientific research into early embryo development and miscarriage to continue, using embryos donated for research by couples who have had fertility treatment in a well-regulated environment.”
CRISPR is an acronym for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat. Its name refers to the unique organization of short, partially palindromic repeated DNA sequences found in the genomes of bacteria and other microorganisms.
CRISPR has given an unparalleled level of control over the human genome. The technique is like a biological word-processing program allowing scientists to precisely snip out and replace genes (cut and paste).
Using CRISPR the researchers plan to “cut and paste” the germline cells in an embryo, which would in affect pass on the changes to the next generation.
For more information on CRISPR watch UC Berkeley Events:
The ethics of editing embryonic genomes
The debate about the ethics of editing embryonic genomes has raged for several years now, and doesn’t look like it’s going away anytime soon. It has been less than a year since Chinese scientists caused an international uproar by announcing that they had genetically modified human embryos.
The results were less than disappointing, with some scientists saying that the embryos they used were abnormal, which were not the ideal test for CRISPR. However, their recent experiments to attempt to edit human genes have raised important questions about the potential risks and ethical concerns of altering the human germline.
A group of geneticists wrote in a commentary published in Nature: “Editing human embryos is problematic because it could have long-term, unintended effects.”
David King, director of the U.K. campaign group Human Genetics Alert, has called Niakan’s plans “the first step on a path… toward the legalization of GM babies,” according to Reuters.
Learn from DNews how CRISPR can genetically modified human embryos:
CRISPR is here and is not going away, and the ethical boundaries will continue to change. The challenge has, and always will be, using this technology in a responsible and socially acceptable way.