UK Approves First Studies of Gene Editing on Human Embryos

The UK’s Human Fertilisation and Embryo Authority (HFEA) has given its approval for studies using the gene-editing technique CRISPR to be used in human embryos. This is the first time UK scientists have been given approval to use DNA-altering techniques in human embryos.

The research team will be led by Dr Kathy Niakan at the Francis Crick Institute in London and hopes to further our understanding of the genes involved in a human embryo developing successfully into a healthy baby. Miscarriages and infertility are extremely common but not well understood.

The research will focus on the the first seven days after fertilisation, during which time the fertilised egg undergoes rapid division forming a structure called a blastocyst. At the blastocyst stage, cells are organised to perform specific roles – some go on to form the placenta, some form the yolk sac and some ultimately form the baby. Some parts of our DNA are highly active during this stage but how our genes are guiding early embryonic development is poorly understood.

Niakan plans to use CRISPR to study a series of genes thought to be involved in early embryonic development. By clipping out a gene of interest and then observing the developing embryo, the researchers should be able to track which types of cells continue to grow and develop. This approach should help to determine which genes are critical to which specific types of tissues in the early embryo. The team will use donated embryos and they will not be allowed to develop beyond 14 days.

This research is ground breaking and should lead to a greater understanding of miscarriage and infertility.

Despite genetically modifying human embryos being hugely controversial, with fears of designer babies and irreversibly altering the human gene pool, the proposed research could lead to a massive step forward in understanding early embryonic development.

– Dr. Vickie Flint