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First genome editing of human embryos by UK scientists

25 September 2017

By Paul Waldron

Appeared in BioNews 919

UK scientists have successfully edited the genome of human embryos to study the role of a gene key to the earliest stages of development.

Dr Kathy Niakan's team at the Francis Crick Institute, London, used CRISPR/Cas9 to deactivate a gene coding for a protein called OCT4 in zygotes. Embryos unable to produce OCT4 were much less likely to successfully develop, found the study.

'This is opening up the possibility of using a really powerful, precise genetics tool to understand gene function. We would have never gained this insight had we not really studied the function of this gene in human embryos,' said Dr Niakan.

OCT4 protein is thought to be produced when an embryo is four or eight cells in size and be involved in the implantation of the developing embryo into the wall of the uterus. 

When Dr Kathy Niakan's team eliminated OCT4 production, they discovered the embryos were much less likely to successfully form into blastocysts than control-treated embryos. Treated embryos began the process of blastocyst formation but were unable to form the different cell populations in this structure, and collapsed.

The study, published in Nature, marks the first time that the nuclear DNA of human embryos has been edited in the UK, where use of human embryos in research is tightly regulated. Dr Niakan was the first scientist licensed by the HFEA to use genome editing in this context (See BioNews 799).

The embryos used in the study were created during IVF treatment and donated by patients for research when no longer needed.

The findings of the study have implications for fertility and developmental research. Current understanding of early development comes mostly from the study of animal models, primarily mouse embryos, which are less strictly regulated. Surprisingly, however, the effects of deleting OCT4 in human embryos appeared to be different from those found in mice, with problems arising at an earlier stage than when the researchers gave the same treatment to mouse embryos.

Dr Dusko Ilic of King's College London, who was not involved with the study, said: 'This is in a way unexpected, because of the dogma that the earliest stages of development are common for all mammalian and even some non-mammalian species. The study is another proof that the findings from experimental animal models cannot be always extrapolated to humans.'

RELATED ARTICLES FROM THE BIONEWS ARCHIVE

02 October 2017 - by Dr Rachel Brown 
A genome editing technique called 'base editing' has been used to correct the mutation causing the inherited blood disorder beta-thalassemia in human embryos...
02 October 2017 - by Sandy Starr 
What do patients and laypeople think and know about genome editing and its implications? What are the best ways for experts and others to discuss genome editing in public, so as to improve public understanding and avoid confusion? The Progress Educational Trust has set out to answer these questions, with its 'Basic Understanding of Genome Editing' project....

07 August 2017 - by Charlotte Spicer 
Scientists have published their study confirming they are the first to correct a disease-causing mutation in human embryos using genome editing...
26 September 2016 - by Anneesa Amjad 
A scientist in Sweden has become the first to edit genes in healthy human embryos...
01 February 2016 - by Ayala Ochert 
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority has granted the first licence to a UK researcher to edit the genomes of human embryos...
27 April 2015 - by Ayala Ochert 
Chinese scientists report the first-ever genetic modification of human embryos using the CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing technique, confirming rumours that these highly controversial experiments were underway...

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