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U.K. Approves New Gene Editing on Human Embryos

The research will include looking at the first seven days of a fertilised egg from a single cell to around 250 cells. (Image: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain)
The research will include looking at the first seven days of a fertilised egg from a single cell to around 250 cells. (Image: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain)

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:

The HFEA did, however, added a condition to the license, noting that:

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:

Expert’s reaction

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:

Ms. Sarah Norcross, Director of Progress Educational Trust, said:

CRISPR

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.

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