The genetic modification of human embryos remains a controversial issue, but a British scientist is hoping to become the first in the U.K. to gain approval to perform the process. It could be used to reduce miscarriages and increase the success rate of IVF.
Dr. Kathy Niakan, from the Francis Crick Institute, is currently awaiting a decision from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) to find out if she is able to go ahead with the technique, first proposed last year. The decision is expected next week and, if approved, gene editing is expected to begin by the summer.
"We would really like to understand the genes needed for a human embryo to develop successfully into a healthy baby,” Dr. Niakan told the BBC. "The reason why it is so important is because miscarriages and infertility are extremely common, but they're not very well understood."
The experiment will focus on the first seven days of embryonic development, when the single cell that is the fertilized egg turns into a structure made of 200 to 300 cells called a blastocyst. During this period, parts of our DNA are very active and they cause certain cells to become specialized: part of the blastocyst will become the placenta, another the yolk sac, and the rest, eventually, us.
Dr. Niakan hopes to use the latest advancement in genetic research, called CRISPR gene editing, to turn off genes one by one during the single-cell stage and study how the blastocyst develops. Most of these genes are unique to humans, so animal experiments are not suitable to understand the subtleties of human development.
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According to New Scientist, gene editing has been carried out on human embryos in China before, but if approval is granted this will become the first time it has been performed anywhere else.
Although several researchers are looking at embryonic gene activation in mice, so far only the Chinese research team has published a paper regarding genetic engineering of human embryos. The research has caused a lot of controversy, and groups around the world have called for a strict ethical approach when it comes to the study of human embryos.
Experiments involving modified embryos in the U.K. are legal but under strict supervision from the HFEA. Scientists need to apply for a license before any study can be performed, and the embryos are destroyed after the experiment is concluded.
[H/T: BBC News]