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UK scientists seek permission to edit embryos

21 September 2015
Appeared in BioNews 820

Researchers from London's Francis Crick Institute are seeking permission to edit the genome of human embryos.

The team are the first to apply to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) for a licence to use the CRISPR/Cas9 genome-editing technology in this way.

The research is intended to explore the reasons why some women experience multiple miscarriages.

'By applying more precise and efficient methods in our research we hope to require fewer embryos and be more successful than the other methods currently used,' commented group leader Dr Kathy Niakan.

The research would use embryos donated from people undergoing IVF. In accordance with UK law, the researchers will only be able to use the embryos for research purposes and they cannot be studied beyond two weeks.

Dr Niakan, explained to the Guardian that the team will use CRISPR/Cas9 to switch on and off genes in early developing embryos and then examine what effect this has on the cells that go on to form the placenta.

'It is essential to study the function of these human genes in the context of the embryo in order to fully understand their roles,' she said.

The application comes shortly after the Wellcome Trust and other science bodies, released a joint statement urging that genome editing be allowed in the UK (see BioNews 818). This was also the opinion of the influential Hinxton group after a recent meeting to discuss the issue (see BioNews 819).

However, some oppose the use of the technique on the human germline for safety and ethical reasons. The creators of the CRISPR/Cas9 technique have previously called for a worldwide moratorium on its use in embryos and germ cells (see BioNews 795), while the US National Institutes of Health, Francis S Collins said it was a 'line that should not be crossed' (see BioNews 800).

In a statement, the HFEA confirmed that it was considering the application.

'Genome editing of embryos for use in treatment is illegal. It has been permissible in research since 2009, as long as the research project meets the criteria in the legislation and it is done under an HFEA licence,' it read.

'We have recently received an application to use CRISPR/Cas9 in one of our licensed research projects, and it will be considered in due course.'

The Progress Educational Trust's public conference 'From Three-Person IVF to Genome Editing: The Science and Ethics of Engineering the Embryo' is taking place in central London on Wednesday 9 December 2015. Find out more here.

21 December 2015 - by Dr Nicoletta Charolidi 
We report from the first session of the annual conference of the Progress Educational Trust, titled 'From Three-Person IVF to Genome Editing: the Science and the Ethics of Engineering the Embryo', in which Professor Azim Surani discussed the germline...
14 December 2015 - by Lone Hørlyck 
The UK Government's Chief Scientific Adviser has made his first public statement on human genome editing. Speaking at the PET annual conference, Professor Sir Mark Walport said that the UK should lead the way in debating genome editing of human embryos...
7 December 2015 - by Rhys Baker 
This 50-minute radio broadcast provides an 'appetiser' on CRISPR and the ethics surrounding genome editing...
23 November 2015 - by Dr James Legg 
On 26 October this year the CRISPR/Cas patent wars truly began with the filing of European oppositions against what appears to be the first patent granted in Europe for this revolutionary gene-editing technology....
14 September 2015 - by Kirsty Oswald 
The influential Hinxton group has said that the genetic modification of human embryos should be allowed...
7 September 2015 - by Dr Katie Howe 
A consortium of medical research funders and learned societies has called for further research into the genetic modification of human cells, as well as a national debate into the ethics of such techniques...
6 July 2015 - by Cait McDonagh 
The US Congress has released a bill that would prohibit the Food and Drug Administration from spending any money in relation to projects that involve editing the human genome...
11 May 2015 - by Dr Calum MacKellar 
The short article by Robin Lovell-Badge entitled 'Editing human embryos' addressing the work of Junjiu Huang and colleagues in China on gene editing in human embryos - such as the use of the CRISPR/Cas9 system - raises a number of ethical questions....
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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