UK scientists win regulatory clearance to edit human embryo genes in CRISPR-Cas9 milestone
- A group of scientists at the Francis Crick Institute led by Dr. Kathy Niakan, a developmental biologist, has received the go-ahead from the UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) to edit human embryos' genomes for research purposes.
- Niakan and her team will be utilizing CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology in their research, and the embryos are specifically not cleared to be implanted into a woman.
- The researchers will be examining embryo behavior in the first week after fertilization in order to better understand miscarriages, infertility, and other problems that manifest at the earliest development stage. In order to do this, they will be modifying the genes that express the most activity during the nascent formation period, which is thought to influence events such as placenta formation.
"We would really like to understand the genes needed for a human embryo to develop successfully into a healthy baby," Niakan explained to the BBC this month. "The reason why it is so important is because miscarriages and infertility are extremely common, but they're not very well understood."
Now that fertility regulators have cleared Niakan's application, her team will run test tube embryo experiments that involve blocking the OCT4 gene, which is thought to play a role in fetal formation. After seven days, these blastocysts (which will contain somewhere between 64 and 256 cells) will be destroyed.
As CRISPR-Cas9 technology has progressed, regulators and ethicists have been forced to grapple with a brave new scientific world in which the potential for genetically modified humans is now a reality. Last year, scientists in China stunned many when they announced that they had successfully applied gene editing to a nonviable embryo in order to modify a gene responsible for the blood disorder beta-thalassemia.
That action was not officially sanctioned by a government entitiy, however.
Experts from around the world also met at a White House summit last year and warned against using CRISPR-Cas9 to specifically cure embryos of ailments or to create so-called "designer babies" and to instead use such modifications for research purposes only. Congress also enshrined that recommendation into last year's $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill. Niakan's research is in line with those guidelines.