Genetic modification of human embryos approved in UK

The recent decision taken by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) regulator to permit genome editing on human embryos is a landmark move, yet has proved contentious in equal measure.

The go-ahead was given in order to facilitate research regarding the underlying causes of miscarriages. Dr Kathy Niakan, a stem-cell scientist at the Francis Crick Institute in London who is undertaking this research, had her request approved. However, she must operate according to strict conditions laid out by the HFEA. Niakan, whose research specifically concerns discovering the genes which play a role in the initial stages of fertilisation in humans, is only allowed to study the embryos for a limited period of 14 days. Furthermore, these embryos are not permitted to be implanted into women.

“Niakan […] is only allowed to study the embryos for a limited period of 14 days. Furthermore, these embryos are not permitted to be implanted into women”

The details of this endeavour offer a fascinating glimpse into the progress made by scientists. Niakan’s project particularly concerns the earliest stages of embryonic development (one to seven days). In order to carry out her project, she is relying on unneeded embryos donated by couples following IVF treatment. It will chart the growth of a fertilised egg from a single-cell to one containing around 250 cells.

The procedure is technologically advanced and will make use of a genome editing tool named ‘Crispr-Cas9’ to turn genes on and off in barely developed human embryos. This technology has been instrumental in biomedical research ever since it was invented three years ago. Now, scientists are able to make minute and highly accurate alterations to DNA, and hence prospectively treat genetic disorders.

“Dr David King, the director of Human Genetics Alert, voiced his disapproval of the move, proclaiming that it marked the first step on the way to the creation of ‘designer babies”

Nevertheless, the issue is fraught with ethical and moral implications which are hard to ignore.  The move has been greeted warmly by the scientific community; however it has been met with hostility from other quarters. Many believe that ethical concerns are being compromised in favour of ruthless and dispassionate scientific advancement. Unsurprisingly, some have levelled predictable accusations at scientists of ‘playing God’. Anne Scanlan, representing the pro-life organisation, Life, spoke out against the decision: “The HFEA now has the reputation of being the first regulator in the world to approve this uncertain and dangerous technology. It has ignored the warnings of over 100 scientists worldwide and given permission for a procedure that could have damaging far-reaching implications for human beings.”  Moreover, Dr David King, the director of Human Genetics Alert, voiced his disapproval of the move, proclaiming that it marked the first step on the way to the creation of ‘designer babies’.

Undoubtedly, genome editing is not without potential risks and complications. However, Scanlan and King both ignore the many benefits of this scientific endeavour. According to Professor Robin Lovell-Badge, the group leader at the Francis Crick Institute, Niakan’s research could ultimately enable scientists to predict whether genome editing could be a means of fixing the rogue genes. This could be greatly beneficial in eradicating destructive diseases. Additionally, the project could contribute to our understanding of why some women experience miscarriages, and could also help bring about enhanced treatments for infertility.

Darren Griffin, a professor of genetics at the University of Kent, summed up the sentiment of the scientific community: “The ruling by the HFEA is a victory for common sense. While it is certain that the prospect of gene editing in human embryos raised a series of ethical issues and challenges, the problem has been dealt with in a balanced manner. It is clear that the potential benefits of the work proposed far outweigh the foreseen risks.”

Image:Bruno Vellutini

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