Green light for human gene editing in the United Kingdom

Written by Elena Conroy

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) give the go-ahead to genetically modify human embryos for developmental research at the Francis Crick Institute.

Scientists in the United Kingdom have been given the go-ahead the fertility regulator to genetically modify human embryos. In a world first, a country has considered the DNA-altering technique in embryos and approved it. The research will take place at the Francis Crick Institute in London and aims to provide a deeper understanding of human development.

The British fertility regulator, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), has given its approval and the experiments could start in the next few months. The license provides permission for genome editing techniques to be used on donated embryos for up to 14 days.

Last year, for the first time, scientists in China announced they had carried out gene editing in human embryos to correct a gene that causes a potentially fatal blood disorder, β-thalassaemia. “China has guidelines, but it is often unclear exactly what they are until you’ve done it and stepped over an unclear boundary,” stated Robin Lovell-Badge, a scientific advisor to the HFEA. “This is the first time it has gone through a properly regulatory system and been approved.”

The aim of the project is to shed light on “the genes human embryos need to develop successfully,” explained the Francis Crick Institute in a statement.

The experiments will take place in the first seven days after fertilization, during which a fertilized egg develops into structure called a blastocyst, containing 200-300 cells.

The work will be led by Kathy Niakan who has spent a decade researching human development. “We would really like to understand the genes needed for a human embryo to develop successfully into a healthy baby,” explained Kathy Niakan from the Francis Crick Institute. “The reason why it is so important is because miscarriages and infertility are extremely common, but they’re not very well understood.”

Dr Niakan is looking to understand what effects certain genome-modifying techniques have on the development of the embryo. Learning more about the early days of embryonic development may help improve the success rates of fertility treatments like in vitro fertilization and could lead to new treatments for women who have a history of recurrent miscarriages.

The UK is the first country in the world to make this type of research
legal. Although it remains illegal to implant modified embryos in women,
the field is attracting controversy over concerns as it is opening the
door to designer – or GM – babies.

“The use of genome editing technologies in embryo research touches on some sensitive issues, therefore it is appropriate that this research and its ethical implications have been carefully considered by the HFEA before being given approval to proceed,” commented Sarah Chan, from the School of Molecular, Genetic and Population Health Sciences at University of Edinburgh. “We should feel confident that our regulatory system in this area is functioning well to keep science aligned with social interests.”