May 21, 2024

UK on verge of editing genome of human embryos

Researchers want to study gene regulation by using surplus IVF embryos

Scientists in the UK could begin genetically engineering human embryos as early as March, if the fertility regulator approves plans by researchers at the new Francis Crick Institute in London.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority meets next week to review the application.

A team led by Kathy Niakan plans to study how embryos develop by systematically disabling genes using the new CRISPR technique for gene editing. They plan to use embryos left over from IVF treatment which have been donated to science. After they have been studied, the embryos will be destroyed at 7 days.

She estimates that 80% of the embryos will be useful. “If we start off with good quality zygotes, this is likely to work efficiently,” she said at a press conference. Her project involves 3 or 4 genes, with about 20 to 30 embryos required for each of them, bringing the total of embryos to be destroyed to a possible 120.

When the technique for editing the embryos has been mastered, it is all but inevitable that it will be used to create embryos which are free of genetic diseases. However, some critics warn that this is the high road to designer babies. Dr Calum MacKellar, Director of Research of the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics told The Telegraph (London):

“Allowing the gene editing of embryos opens the road to genetically modifying all the descendants of a person as well as full blown eugenics which was condemned by all civilised societies after the Second World War. It is the very future of the way in which societies accept persons with disabilities that is at play since such gene editing procedures infer that they should not have been brought into existence.”
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