In the next few months, scientists in the United Kingdom are expected to begin experiments in which they will use gene editing to modify the DNA of human embryos.
The project still needs to receive ethical approval.
The researchers plan to use embryos donated by patients who have surplus embryos from in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatment.
The modified embryos will be for research purposes only and will not be implanted into a woman.
The scientists at the London institute will conduct the experiments to study the first seven days of a fertilized egg’s development, when it grows from one cell to about 250 cells.
The team will be led by Dr. Kathy Niakan. Officials at the Crick Institute said they are pleased with the HFEA’s decision to approve the institute’s research application.
"I am delighted that the HFEA has approved Dr. Niakan's application,” said Paul Nurse, director of the institute in a statement. “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.”
Morals vs. Medicine
Experiments on human embryos have raised concerns in recent years over the possibility that “designer babies” will eventually be produced by using gene editing to alter the DNA of embryos.
“I am absolutely certain this is coming,” Ronald Green, PhD, a Dartmouth College professor and author of "Babies by Design: The Ethics of Genetic Choice,” told CNN. “By the end of this century, I am absolutely confident that we will have the tools for someone with the means to use this information to change the child they can have through this process.”
In a statement last April, officials at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the United States said they would not fund research that uses gene-editing technologies on human embryos.
“The concept of altering the human germ line in embryos for clinical purposes has been debated over many years from many different perspectives, and has been viewed almost universally as a line that should not be crossed,” NIH officials said.
However, Crick Institute scientists say the research is designed to help them understand the genes human embryos need to develop properly.
The knowledge, they say, could improve embryo development after IVF treatments as well as better clinical treatments for infertility.
Their experiments were hailed by a number of scientists in the U.K.
“The ruling by the HFEA is a triumph for common sense,” Professor Darren Griffin, Ph.D., a professor of genetics at the University of Kent, said in a statement released by the Science Media Centre. “While it is certain that the prospect of gene editing in human embryos raised a series of ethical issues and challenges, the problem has been dealt with in a balanced manner. It is clear that the potential benefits of the work proposed far outweigh the foreseen risks.”
Marcy Darnovsky, PhD, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society in Berkeley, California, told Healthline the Crick Institute research in itself is not the problem.
However, she said there are legitimate concerns that these experiments could lead to designer babies. She said such cell manipulation could be harmful to not only the embryo but to the generations that followed.
“It’s dangerous to use on both safety grounds and social grounds,” Darnovsky said.
Embryo Editing Advancing
The British scientists will not be the first researchers to conduct such experiments.
Last spring, Chinese scientists published their research in which they used the gene editing process known as CRISPR on human embryos.
About the same time, scientists at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) announced that they had successfully used CRISPR techniques on fruit flies.
The Crick Institute research is the first embryo modification experiments in Great Britain.
Darnovsky said gene editing technology has been touted as a way to help people with chronic diseases. However, there has also been talk of using it to make genetic changes that will be passed down to future children and generations.
To some critics, the next step from that is altering embryonic DNA so a person is stronger, taller, or better looking.
“I don’t think that’s inevitable by any means,” Darnovsky said, “but I think we’re at a decision point.”