UK researcher applies for embryo gene-editing license

Just months after the release of a controversial Chinese study into embryo gene-editing, British scientists have requested permission to genetically modify human embryos using the ground-breaking CRISPR-CAS9 technique.

Dr Kathy Niakan, a leading developmental biologist affiliated with the Francis Crick Institute in London, believes the research would provide us with “fundamental insights into early human development”.

Niakan intends to use Crispr-Cas9 to switch genes on and off in early stage human embryos. She will then look for the effects the modifications have on the development of the cells that go on to form the placenta. “It is essential to study the function of these human genes in the context of the embryo in order to fully understand their roles,” she said in a statement last week.

Niakan's application to the Human Fertilisation and Embryo Authority (HFEA) comes in the wake of an important statement released by a group of leading British gene-editing research funders. In that document, the funding bodies expressed cautious support for embryo gene-editing research, and encouraged the broader community to explore the ethical and regulatory considerations in a 'timely manner'.

Staff at the Francis Crick institute have tried to distinguish Niakan's work from the controversial experiments carried out in China. “There is clearly lots of interesting and important research you can do with these techniques which has nothing to do with clinical applications”, said Robin Lovell-Badge, head of stem cell biology at the Francis Crick Institute and a member of the Hinxton Group, But, he added: “We are absolutely not ready for clinical applications yet.”

Niakan says she is not aiming to correct a genetic defect; rather, she is only wishes to know more about the early stages of human embryo development. 

MORE ON THESE TOPICS | CRISPR, embryo research, UK

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