U.K. authorities granted approval to researchers to edit the genomes of human embryos on Monday. This is the first time any nation has given permission for this kind of research.
Geneticist and researcher Kathy Niakin, of the Francis Crick Institute in London, submitted the application to use CRISPR on healthy human embryos. CRISPR is gene-editing technology that recently got international attention in a dispute over its ownership and creation.
According to Nature, Niakin's team will use embryos immediately after fertilization, and destroy them a week later.
The researchers aim to gain understanding that will lead to treatments for infertility and prevent miscarriages. Because this is the first time any such research has been approved, the Institute suspects that it will embolden other researchers to apply for similar permissions, "or just go ahead anyway" without such permission, as the Crick Institute's Robin Lovell-Badge put it to Nature.
The embryos will all be donated by volunteers who are undergoing IVF treatments at fertility clinics, knowing that their donation could help improve fertility treatments in the future. By looking at the way healthy embryos develop, the researchers can examine how to keep an embryo healthy during IVF procedures.
However, not everyone is celebrating the development. Some fear that allowing embryonic genome editing for research is a slippery slope toward "designer babies," or hypothetical children whose genes have been manipulated by their parents to curb disease or produce desirable traits like preferred eye color or sex.
Professor Sheldon Krimsky of Tufts University is one such critic. He has argued against genetic modification of human reproductive cells (germ cells). In an email to Tech Times, he wrote, "There is no clear boundary between therapy and enhancement when it comes to germ line [reproductive] genetic modification .... In my view, all other options for preventing life-threatening and severely disabling diseases must be exhausted before we contemplate genetically modifying gametes for reproduction."
Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the U.S.-based Center for Genetics and Society, agrees. "Is today's decision part of a strategy to overturn the widespread agreement that puts genetically modified humans off-limits?," she asks, in a press release on the U.K. decision. "Unfortunately, there are [some] who seem to disregard the dire safety and societal risks of manipulating the genes of our children and future generations."
However, she hopes the decision today will bring with it renewed interest in the discussion on the ethics of genetic manipulation of the human genome. And she hopes that attention will bring with it a definite ban on human genetic modification.
Paul Nurse, director of the Crick Institute, sees the moral issue pointing the other direction. "I am delighted that the HFEA has approved Dr. Niakan's application," he wrote in a press release. "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 - one to seven days."
HFEA is Britian's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, the country's fertility regulators. A local research ethics board, similar to an institutional review board in the United States, now needs to approve the research proposal. The HFEA said that no experiments could begin until such ethics approval was granted.
Photo: Ed Uthman, M.D. | Flickr