Permission asked to genetically modify human embryos

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Scientists in Britain have applied for permission to genetically modify human embryos as part of a research project into the earliest stages of human development. The Guardian reports that the work marks a controversial first for the UK.

Kathy Niakan, a stem cell scientist at the Francis Crick Institute in London, has asked the government’s fertility regulator for a licence to perform so-called genome editing on human embryos. The research could see the first genetically modified embryos in Britain created within months. Donated by couples with a surplus after IVF treatment, the embryos would be used for basic research only. They cannot legally be studied for more than two weeks or implanted into women to achieve a pregnancy.

The report says though the modified embryos will never become children, the move will concern some who have called for a global moratorium on the genetic manipulation of embryos, even for research purposes. They fear a public backlash could derail less controversial uses of genome editing, which could lead to radical new treatments for disease.

Niakan wants to use the procedure to find genes at play in the first few days of human fertilisation, when an embryo develops a coating of cells that later form the placenta. The basic research could 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 is quoted in the report as saying.

The UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has yet to review her application, but is expected to grant a licence under existing laws that permit experiments on embryos provided they are destroyed within 14 days. In Britain, research on embryos can only go ahead under a licence from an HFEA panel that deems the experiments to be justified.

The report says Niakan is one of a growing band of scientists working with a powerful new genome editing procedure called Crispr-Cas9. Invented three years ago, it has revolutionised biomedical research. It allows scientists to make precise changes to DNA, and has the potential to transform the treatment of genetic disorders by correcting faulty genes. Niakan will use Crispr-Cas9 to switch genes on and off in early stage human embryos. She will then look for the effects the modifications have on the development of the cells that go on to form the placenta. “It is essential to study the function of these human genes in the context of the embryo in order to fully understand their roles,” she said.

Earlier this month, leading UK funders called for a national debate on whether editing human embryos could ever be justified in the clinic. Weeks later, international experts belonging to the Hinxton Group said it did not yet approve of GM babies being born, but added that "when all safety, efficacy and governance needs are met, there may be morally acceptable uses of this technology in human reproduction."

Robin Lovell-Badge, head of stem cell biology at the Francis Crick Institute and a member of the Hinxton Group, said in the report: "There is clearly lots of interesting and important research you can do with these techniques which has nothing to do with clinical applications." But, he added: "We are absolutely not ready for clinical applications yet."

The US National Institutes of Health will not fund any genome editing research on human embryos, and its head, Francis Collins, has said that altering the DNA of embryos for clinical purposes was "viewed almost universally as a line that should not be crossed." But if the procedure is made safe enough in coming years, IVF embryos could, in principle, be modified to boost public health, by reducing people’s risk of Alzheimer's disease, or to make them resistant to HIV, malaria or influenza, the report says.

Full report in The Guardian

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