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UK Researchers Get Nod To Genetically Modify Human Embryos: How Gene Editing Works

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UK scientists received the go signal to genetically modify human embryos for a purely scientific purpose: to analyze the main causes of infertility in women.

In early January, the team from London-based Francis Crick Institute applied for permission to conduct the research via the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA). Kathy Niakan from the Francis Crick Institute said the team wants to analyze what vital genes the human embryos require to successfully develop into a healthy baby.

Niakan added that findings can lead to a deeper understanding why infertility and miscarriages are prevalent. The research team will use the gene editing technique to analyze "extra" in vitro fertilization (IVF) embryos within the first seven days of fertilization.

Here's what you need to know about gene editing.

What Is It?

Gene editing is a technology that can remove genes that cause severe genetic diseases. The latest and simplest form of gene editing technology is CRISPR/Cas9, which is likened to a word processor that can "cut and paste" genes in DNA strands.

Why Is It Controversial?

Supporters of gene editing technology said it can help eliminate genetic diseases. On the other hand, critics said it can lead the way for genetic enhancements to become commercially available. For instance, rich couples could abuse the technology and request for specific traits for their offspring such as higher IQ or improved athletic capabilities.

Genetically modified traits can also be passed on to the unborn generations. The consequences have yet to be discovered, which makes the technology risky. Critics said gene editing could lead to the genetic modification of children and that it should be halted before it even begins.

"Once the process begins, there will be no going back. This is a line we must not cross," said the Center for Genetics and Society's consulting researcher Pete Shanks, who, along with other U.S. scientists and activists, published a report in November 2015 that calls for the global ban of CRISPR/Cas9.

When Can We Use CRISPR/Cas9?

There is currently a coast-to-coast patent war over the CRISPR/Cas9 technology. A group from the University of California, Berkeley and a group from the MIT Broad Institute both claimed they are the makers of the latest gene editing technology. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration can analyze CRISPR/Cas9's medical applications only after the patent war is over.

Photo: Eric Ward | Flickr

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