Developmental biologist Kathy Niakan has received permission from the UK Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA) to edit the genome of human embryos using the new CRISPR technology.
The HFEA, which grants licenses for experimentation on embryos, sperm and eggs in the UK, approved the research at a license committee meeting on January 14.
Niakan, a researcher at the Francis Crick Institute in London, plans to investigate the genetic make-up needed for an embryo to develop into a healthy baby.
"The reason why it is so important is because miscarriages and infertility are extremely common, but they're not very well understood”, she told the BBC.
The UK has now become the first nation in the world to consider and approve the DNA-altering technique in embryos.
Some scientists lauded the announcement. Peter Braude, an emeritus professor of obstetrics and gynecology at King’s College London, said that he was delighted to hear of the approval:
“Gene editing tools will allow fresh insights into the basic genetic mechanisms that control cell allocation in the early embryo. These mechanisms are crucial in ensuring healthy normal development and implantation, and when they go wrong might result in failure to implant or miscarriage. I await results with interest.”
Others were more sceptical. Donna Dickenson, Emeritus Professor of Medical Ethics, at the University of London, expressed concern about the potential effects of germline modifications:
“Future generations, however, are not able to consent to germline editing that will manipulate their welfare in ways that we cannot yet predict or alter if things go wrong. Looking back, our descendants might or might not accept our decision as legitimate, but they will have no way of changing it.”
Peter Saunders, of the Christian Medical Fellowship, is doubtful about the ability of embryonic gene-editing to redress genetic abnormalities:
“Genetic abnormalities which result in implantation failure (either in IVF or naturally) or miscarriage are chromosomal abnormalities, not abnormalities in single genes. But only abnormalities in single genes can be fixed with gene editing of the sort that the Crick Institute is proposing. Gene editing does not fix chromosomal abnormalities.”
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