World first approval for gene editing in human embryos

1 February 2016

Approval has been granted for UK scientists to genetically modify human embryos.

Scientists at the Francis Crick Institute in London have been given the go-ahead by UK regulator the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) to genetically modify human embryos. The marks the world’s first endorsement of the DNA-altering technique in embryos by a national regulatory authority.

Last year researchers in China sparked a debate into whether to draw the line on gene-editing in human embryos, after they carried out gene editing in human embryos to correct a gene that causes a blood disorder.

The work will be led by Dr Kathy Niakan, who is interested in early embryonic development and the underlying causes of miscarriage and infertility. Researchers will alter genes active in the first few days after conception to shed light on the reasons for miscarriage. After seven days the experiment will be stopped and the embryos will be destroyed. This is within the limits set by current legal provisions in the UK, which allow modification of human embryos for purposes of medical research, subject to regulatory approval, and provided the human embryos are neither nurtured beyond 14 days in the laboratory nor implanted into a woman to establish a pregnancy.

Paul Nurse, the president of the Francis Crick Institute said: "Dr Niakan's proposed research is important for understanding how a healthy human embryo develops and will enhance our understanding of IVF success rates, by looking at the very earliest stage of human development."

Sarah Chan, a bioethicist at the University of Edinburgh told the BBC: “I think this will be a good example to countries who are considering their approach to regulating this technology. We can have a well-regulated system that is able to make that distinction between research and reproduction”.

A local research ethics board will first need to approve the research Nikan’s team have planned, but experiments could start in the next few months.

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