Scientists in the United Kingdom are set to create the world's first genetically modified human embryos by March. The team applied for a license to genetically edit "extra" in vitro fertilization embryos for research. Their proposal is currently awaiting approval from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, which will give its final decision this month.
The Francis Crick Institute scientists are confident they can start to work immediately once approved. The goal is to analyze the main causes of infertility in women.
To date, about 50 percent of fertilized eggs fail to develop properly. Fertility experts believe that the failure is because of a defective genetic code. The genome-editing technology could aid scientists in determining which genes are vital for successful cell division, and eventually a healthy pregnancy.
The technology has potential life-changing benefits for women who cannot get pregnant because they carry a specific mutation. The genome-editing technique could be used to allow the woman's future offspring to reproduce without the mutation hindering a successful embryo implantation.
"It's possible. We don't know. It's just one of those unknowns, [but that would be a good argument] for allowing it to be used in a way that doesn't have any other consequences, and remember quite a few genes that are active in the early embryo have roles later on," said Francis Crick Institute's Professor Robin Lovell-Badge.
The team highlighted that they would be editing day-old IVF embryos that are not permitted to mature past the seven-day blastocyst stage. It is also illegal to implant these "old" embryos beyond the time limit. But, if the research proves successful, it could lead the path to future "GM babies" and perhaps, the current ban will be lifted.
The technology is surrounded by many social and ethical issues. Critics believe the genome-editing could open doors to social and ethical problems. One possible scenario involves wealthy parents who could be tempted to genetically edit future offsprings to have specific traits either academically or physically.
However, lead scientist Dr. Kathy Niakan explained that the research could not only give hope to potential parents, but it can also change the world's understanding of human biology.
"Miscarriages and infertility are extremely common but they are not very well understood. We believe that this research could improve our understanding of the very earliest stages of human life," said Niakan. The Francis Crick team is already in contact with various fertility clinics in the UK for potential spare IVF embryos.
Photo: Kalle Gustafsson | Flickr