Researchers are seeking permission to genetically modify human embryos for the first time in Britain. The application is sure to stir up a considerable amount of controversy in what is a scientific minefield.
The request has come from a team at the Francis Crick Institute in London, led by stem cell scientist Dr Kathy Niakan. They have asked the U.K. Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA) for permission to use a technique known as CRISPR/Cas9 to edit DNA. This is a cost-effective, easy and remarkably precise method of genetic modification, but some have questioned where it might lead.
The scientists at the Francis Crick Institute say the embryos would be used purely for research only; embryos would be studied for just two weeks, and by law, they cannot be used to make someone pregnant anyway. Proponents say it could lead to better treatment of diseases; others see it as a slippery slope to “designer babies,” allowing people to decide traits of their children before they are born.
“To provide further fundamental insights into early human development we are proposing to test the function of genes using gene editing and transfection approaches that are currently permitted under the HFE Act 2008,” said Niakan in a statement. “Importantly, in line with HFEA regulations, any donated embryos would be used for research purposes only. These embryos would be donated by informed consent and surplus to IVF treatment."
If the application is successful, the team plans to use the research to better understand how a healthy human embryo develops. According to the statement, this could help “improve embryo development after in vitro fertilisation (IVF) and might provide better clinical treatments for infertility.”
The CRISPR-Cas9 technique makes it cheap and easy to genetically modify embryos, which has led to much discussion about the implications of such research. Some say it could be used to correct genetic defects or provide resistance to some diseases. “However, it is up to society to decide what is acceptable: science will merely inform what may be possible,” Niakan told The Guardian.
Earlier this year, Chinese scientists said they had performed genome manipulation on human IVF embryos for the first time, sparking a debate on the ethics of such research. It remains to be seen how the field will progress in future, although some think this latest request isn't that big a deal.
“The use of genome-editing techniques in this context is really the same as using any other method on an embryo that is not going to be implanted into a woman, and which will be destroyed after a few days of culture,” Sarah Chan, a bioethics researcher at the University of Edinburgh, told Nature.