Britain has given scientists the green light to edit the genes of human embryos for research, by means of a technique that, according to some, could eventually be used to create “designer babies”.
Less than a year after Chinese scientists triggered an international controversy by saying they had genetically modified human embryos, Kathy Niakan, a stem cell scientist from London’s Francis Crick Institute, was granted a license to perform parallel experiments.
“The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has approved a research application from the Francis Crick Institute to use new ‘gene editing’ techniques on human embryos,” Niakan’s lab said on Monday.
It stated that the work “will be for research purposes and will look at the first seven days of a fertilized egg’s development, from a single cell to around 250 cells”.
In her experiment, Niakan plans to use CRISPR-Cas9, a technology that has been the subject of fierce international debate because of the probability of it being used to create babies to order.
Scientists have described CRISPR as “game-changing”, for it enables them to find and modify or replace genetic defects.
David King, director of the UK campaign group Human Genetics Alert, has called Niakan’s plans “the first step on a path … towards the legalization of GM babies”.
However, Niakan says the purpose of her experiment isn’t genetically altering embryos for use in human reproduction, as she only wants to achieve a deeper scientific understanding of how a healthy human embryo develops, something that could, in the long term, contribute to improving infertility treatments.
At a briefing for reporters in London last month, she said the first gene she wanted to target was called Oct4. She believes that this gene may have a decisive role in the earliest stages of human fetal development.
Bruce Whitelaw, a professor of animal biotechnology at Edinburgh University’s Roslin Institute on Scotland, said the HFEA’s decision had been reached “after robust assessment”.
“This project, by increasing our understanding of how the early human embryo develops and grows, will add to the basic scientific knowledge needed for devising strategies to assist infertile couples and reduce the anguish of miscarriage,” he said in an emailed comment.