Following the commotion caused by Chinese biologists’ announcing in April that they have carried out the first case of genetically modifying human embryos, Kathy Niakan, a stem cell scientist from London’s Francis Crick Institute, has asked the British government’s fertility regulator for permission to perform similar experiments.
Since the development of the new genetic technology known as ‘CRISPR-Cas9’, which give researchers the ability to edit almost any gene in animal and human embryos, scientists around the world have entangled themselves in a debate about its future applications. The technology is specifically designed to allow researchers to locate and change or replace genetic defects in embryos, but it has received heavy criticism for its potential to create “designer babies”, ala Brave New World.
However in a statement about her application to the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA), Niaka dismissed the idea of genetically altering embryos for use in human reproduction, saying that she and her team are simply looking to deepen scientific understanding of how a healthy human embryo develops.
“This knowledge may improve embryo development after in vitro fertilization (IVF) and might provide better clinical treatments for infertility,” she said.
Furthermore, Niakan plans to focus on genes that are in the first few days of human fertilisation, when an embryo is growing a coating of cells that later becomes the placenta. She hopes the research will help scientists understand why some women lose their babies before term.
“The knowledge we acquire will be very important for understanding how a healthy human embryo develops, and this will inform our understanding of the causes of miscarriage. It is not a slippery slope [towards designer babies] because the UK has very tight regulation in this area,” she told The Guardian.
British law bans genome editing of embryos for use in treatment, however an HFEA spokesperson noted that the procedure is allowed for research purposes as long as it is done with an HFEA license. They have not yet passed or denied Niakan’s application, but it will be considered in due course, he said.
Sarah Chan at Edinburgh University’s Usher Institute for Population Health Sciences and Informatics expressed that the researcher’s request for HFEA permission “should be cause for confidence, not concern”.
“Genome editing research undeniably has tremendous scientific potential, and UK scientists are poised to make a world-leading contribution to this exciting field,” she said. “At the same time, we should be reassured to know that this work is being carried out under a robust regulatory scheme that ensures high scientific and ethical standards.”