A UK geneticist has become the first person to be granted a licence to use new gene editing techniques on human embryos for research purposes.
Overnight, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority gave the go-ahead to Dr Kathy Niakan, who studies human development at the Francis Crick Institute in London.
Dr Niakan will be able to use human embryos which have been donated by people undergoing fertility treatment and modify their DNA during the first seven days of their development. During this time, a fertilised egg grows from a single cell to around 250 cells and a structure called a blastocyst.
The institute said in a statement the proposed research was important for understanding how a healthy human embryo develops and that it “will enhance our understanding of IVF success rates, by looking at the very earliest stage of human development”.
The approval is for research purposes only and it will be illegal to implant the genetically modified embryo into a woman.
This is the first time a country has considered the use of the latest DNA-altering technique, known as CRISPR, in human embryos and approved it. The method has attracted controversy over concerns that it could open the door to designer, or genetically modified, babies.
In New Zealand, in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) technology has been widely available for more than 30 years and, in cases where a serious genetic condition runs in the family, the resulting IVF embryos can be screened before implantation and discarded if they carry the condition.
However, the modification of DNA of any human embryo is prohibited.
University of Otago emeritus professor Gareth Jones said the announcement was not surprising “because it fits within the very well-developed regulatory framework in existence in the UK”.
He said the research had the potential to shed light on why so many early embryos failed to develop and ended in miscarriages.
From a New Zealand perspective, he said: “The sad reality is that developmental biologists in this country can only look on as prospects like these are investigated… because no research on human embryos, including ones surplus to the requirements of those in IVF clinical programs, is allowed.”
He said the UK regulatory framework might be more liberal than some would like, but "it is clear and has in place numerous controls".
Neil Gemmell, another professor at the University of Otago, said the UK decision appeared to be targeted at understanding the causes of early miscarriages, which were “frighteningly common, some estimate one in three pregnancies, but we really don’t have great data on this because they often have occurred before the women is even aware she is pregnant”.
He said the research would have obvious benefits for people undergoing IVF, but did “set the scene for application, and potentially permissions, for more directed manipulations of human embryos, whether that might be to ameliorate disease or for other purposes”.
Prof Gemmell's colleague, Peter Dearden, said the approval allowed genome editing to be used to study the causes and consequences of early embryo failure, not for producing genome-edited human beings.
“This is good news in that it allows critical and important research to go ahead. I does raise the question as to how long it will be before an application is approved to edit the human genome to reverse a well characterised disease.”
The UK team now needs to gain ethical approval and, subject to that, the research will begin within the next few months.