Francis Crick Institute Scientists Granted License to Edit Genes in Human Embryos – What will the Initial Impacts be?

In a global first, the UK’s Human Fertility and Embryology Authority (HFEA) have granted permission to a group of London-based scientist to edit the genomes of human embryos for research. Announced on 1st February 2016, the endorsement is the first of its kind by any national regulatory authority.

The approved research application from the Francis Crick Institute led by Dr Kathy Niakan is aimed at identifying and understanding the gene human embryos need to develop successfully. The research team will look at the first seven days of a fertilised egg’s development in the hope of providing important knowledge for understanding how a healthy human embryo develops.

Dr Niakan will be using CRISPR-Cas9 technology which enables the scientists to modify, identify, or replace genetic defects.

Commenting on the news, Paul Nurse, Director of the Crick, explained: “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.”

So what will be the initial impact of this authorisation?

Controversy

With a topic such as genetically modified human genomes, controversy will not be far behind, with those opposed to the authorisation believing that this will open the door to ‘GM babies’.  It must though be made clear that this authorisation specifically states that it will be illegal for the scientists to implant the modified embryos into women.

Speaking on the ethical implications of the decision, Dr Sarah Chan from the University of Edinburgh said:

“The use of genome editing technologies in embryo research touches on some sensitive issues, therefore it is appropriate that this research and its ethical implications have been carefully considered by the HFEA before being given approval to proceed.”

“We should feel confident that our regulatory system in this area is functioning well to keep science aligned with social interests.”

IVF

Moving away from the controversy, it is good news for those receiving IVF treatment. With the increased knowledge that will be gained from the research, IVF success rates should dramatically improve thanks to the focus on miscarriage and fertility. Speaking to the BBC, Dr Kathy Niakan has said that the reason why she applied for the approval to edit human embryos was that “we would really like to understand the gene needed for a human embryo to develop successfully into a healthy baby”.

Dr Niakan went further to explain that “the reason why it is so important is because miscarriages and infertility are extremely common, but they’re not very well understood”.

Ethical Approval

The research is still in need of ethical approval before the programme can begin, but it is looking likely that this will be granted and the research will begin in the next few months.

With the research likely to add to the basic scientific knowledge needed for assisting infertile couples becoming parents, and to reduce the heartbreak of miscarriage, this is but one practical positive that will hopefully come from the work of Dr Niakan and her team.

Not only does the research have the potential to greatly assist in IVF treatment, it is another display of the excellent position the UK holds in the genome editing field of research and the advances being made by UK scientists.

At Cell Therapy Manufacturing & Gene Therapy Congress on 2nd – 5th February in Brussels, industry leaders will discuss technical and commercial strategies to deliver gene therapy products to patients. See the full agenda and book tickets at https://celltherapy.knnlab.com/.

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