Scientists in the UK have been given the green light to genetically modify human embryos for the first time.
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) regulator has approved a licence for researchers at the Francis Crick Institute in London to use gene editing in research.
They will now be able to perform experiments on embryos in the first seven days after fertilisation
The Independent reports:
It remains illegal for the scientists to implant the altered embryos into women, but the decision represents a huge landmark in the use of revolutionary gene-editing technology known as Crispr-Cas9.
The licence was granted by the UK’s independent Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA). The committee added a caveat that no gene editing can take place until the research receives separate approval from an ethics panel, which could be achieved by March.
The project is being led by Dr Kathy Niakan at the Francis Crick Institute in London, and colleagues said they were “delighted” her licence application had been approved.
Much of Dr Niakan’s application was dedicated to addressing the ethical issues surrounding the editing of human embryos. After the passing of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act in 2008, the UK has some of the strongest legislation in the world in this field.
The research will see scientists cutting into the genetic code of embryos, isolating individual segments of DNA and assessing how they contribute to the early growth and behaviour of the embryos.
An embryo only has around 250 cells at the seven-day point of development, and a high proportion are simply absorbed into the placenta. Understanding which genes dictate this could dramatically improve IVF success rates in future.
The project will use surplus embryos from IVF treatment which would have been destroyed anyway, and women will be required to give specific consent for them to be used in this way.
Crispr-Cas9 is an immensely powerful technique invented three years ago which allows DNA to be “cut and pasted” using molecular “scissors”.
It could lead to huge leaps forward in science and medicine but critics have warned that the pace of change is too fast.
They fear misuse of such technology could lead to potentially dangerous treatments and “designer babies”.