British scientists given go-ahead for ‘gene editing’ (but it’s not quite a world first)

    1 February 2016

    British scientists have gained approval for modifying human embryos following a decision by the fertility regulator.

    The experiments, at the Francis Crick Institute, will take place during the first seven days post-fertilisation, when the embryo contains about 300 cells. The ruling stipulates that it will still be illegal to implant the modified embryos into a woman.

    Last year scientists in China announced that they had modified human embryos to correct a gene that causes a blood disorder. But Prof Robin Lovell-Badge, a scientific advisor to Britain’s fertility regulator, told the BBC: ‘China has guidelines, but it is often unclear exactly what they are until you’ve done it and stepped over an unclear boundary.

    ‘This is the first time it has gone through a properly regulatory system and been approved.’

    The experiments will be led by Dr Kathy Niakan. She said: ‘We would really like to understand the genes needed for a human embryo to develop successfully into a healthy baby. The reason why it is so important is because miscarriages and infertility are extremely common, but they’re not very well understood.’

    Paul Nurse, the director of the Crick Institute, said: ‘I am delighted that the HFEA has approved Dr Niakan’s application. Dr Niakan’s proposed research is important for understanding how a healthy human embryo develops and will enhance our understanding of IVF success rates by looking at the very earliest stage of human development.’

    A summit on human gene editing held in Washington DC in December served as a reminder of the controversy surrounding the practice. In the US such work is currently ineligible for federal funding — and in Germany it could mean a prison sentence. There are fears from campaign groups, such as the Center for Genetics and Society, that it could lead to ‘designer babies’.

    In an open letter the group said: ‘Like so many powerful new technologies, gene editing holds potential for both great benefit and great harm.

    ‘The implementation of heritable human genetic modification — often referred to as the creation of ‘genetically modified humans’ or ‘designer babies’ — could irrevocably alter the nature of the human species and society.

    ‘Gene editing may hold some promise for somatic gene therapy (aimed at treating impaired tissues in a fully formed person). However, there is no medical justification for modifying human embryos or gametes in an effort to alter the genes of a future child.’