Embryo Gene Editing Gets the Go-Ahead in UK

Tim Locke

February 01, 2016

The UK fertility regulator has become the first in the world to approve gene editing of human embryos.

The research license does not allow the embryos to develop into infants, but in the future it is hoped that genetically modifying human embryos could lead to cures for some inherited genetic conditions. Critics had raised concerns that the technique could be used to create "designer babies."

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) decision followed Parliament changing the law last year to allow the procedure.

Gene Editing

Embryos no longer needed for in vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures will be donated for the research, starting at The Francis Crick Institute in London.

Genome editing is already common in crop research to help farmers grow plants that are more resistant to bugs and diseases.

In human inherited conditions, it is hoped that in the future, would-be parents who carry genes that cause their children to have a high risk of inheriting serious medical conditions would be able to undergo mitochondrial DNA editing. Faulty genes could be removed so the child could develop without conditions such as Huntington’s disease, cystic fibrosis, and hemophilia.

'Historic Moment'

In a statement, HFEA chair Sally Cheshire says: "This is an historic moment for the UK as we can now give women with serious mitochondrial disease the chance to have their own healthy genetic children for the first time.

"We have worked very hard to develop a licensing system that is rigorous and safe for patients whilst also being fair for the clinics providing treatment. Patients are always at the centre of everything we do and the families affected by the often devastating symptoms of mitochondrial disease are no different. Our licensing process makes sure each application is considered on a case by case basis to take into account the ethical and technical complexities of these treatments to ensure that any children born have the best chance of a healthy life.

"Our goal remains that everyone affected by assisted reproduction receives the highest quality care and support possible."

Professor Robin Lovell-Badge, group leader of The Francis Crick Institute, says in a statement he's delighted that his colleague Kathy Niakan has had her license application approved: "This will allow her to not only continue her research on how the early human embryo develops, but allow her to address the role of specific genes through the use of CRISPR/Ca9 genome editing methods."

These techniques have become known as "molecular scissors."

"The approval of her license gives the exciting prospect that we will at last begin to understand how the different cell types are specified at these pre-implantation stages in the human embryo," Professor Lovell-Badge says.

And he stresses that safeguards remain in place to limit the scope of the research: "The UK has an excellent regulatory system in place, via the HFEA, that will ensure that any genetically manipulated embryos will not be implanted to allow further development: this possibility would require a change of law, and this could not happen without broad approval from society as well as parliament."



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