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UK researchers seek HFEA permission to edit human embryo

18 January 2016
Appeared in BioNews 835

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) is considering a proposal from scientists to genetically edit human embryos.

The scientists, at the Francis Crick Institute in London, hope this approach will shed light on early stages of life, reduce miscarriages and potentially improve fertility treatments.

'We would really like to understand the genes needed for a human embryo to develop successfully into a healthy baby,' lead scientist Dr Kathy Niakan told The Telegraph. 'The reason why it is so important is because miscarriages and infertility are extremely common, but they're not very well understood. You never can predict where the research will lead, but we hope it would be a great benefit for fertility treatments in the long term.'

The team applied for a licence to use the CRISPR/Cas9 genome-editing technology in September 2015 (see BioNews 820), and the HFEA met to consider their application on 14 January 2016. They are expected to report their decision shortly.

By using this tool, the researchers plan to 'turn off' up to four genes in a human embryo while it is still at the single-cell stage to find out whether they are crucial for early human development. They will then monitor how the embryos grow until they are one week old, when they will be destroyed.

All of the embryos used for the study are spare frozen IVF embryos, donated by couples undergoing treatment. It is estimated that around 20 to 30 embryos will be required per gene, so in total about 120 embryos may be needed.

If the HFEA approves, Dr Niakan and her team could be the first researchers outside of China to edit human embryos (see BioNews 799). However, authorisation from a separate ethics committee would also be needed until the team could start the work.

Out of 100 eggs fertilised during IVF, fewer than 50 reach the blastocyst stage, 25 implant into the womb and only 13 develop beyond three months. Why these rates are so low is something that the proposed research aims to explain. This could help doctors to recognise which embryos have the best chance of resulting in a successful pregnancy.

Although animal studies have helped scientists understand how some embryos develop, there are significant differences between mice and people – some genes are not expressed the same way or some are not expressed at all. Therefore, the UK team argue that they need to study human embryos directly.

However, some people oppose the use of gene editing in human embryos for safety and ethical reasons, and say that altering the DNA of an embryo is a step too far.

Dr Calum MacKellar, Director of Research of the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics told The Telegraph: '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.'

The research has also received support from others. Sarah Norcross, Director of the Progress Educational Trust, which publishes BioNews, said: 'This is an important piece of basic scientific research. Recurrent miscarriage affects a huge number of people and it isn't greatly understood. People are just told to go away and try again. To improve our understanding of something like that, which has a huge impact on people, is really valuable.'

British scientists could genetically edit human embryos by March
The Telegraph |  13 January 2016
Kathy Niakan: Scientist makes case to edit embryos
BBC News |  13 January 2016
U.K. researcher details proposal for CRISPR editing of human embryos
Science (AAAS) |  13 January 2016
UK scientists ready to genetically modify human embryos
The Guardian |  13 January 2016
Why UK researchers hope to try gene-editing on human embryos
New Scientist |  13 January 2016
1 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...
25 January 2016 - by Antony Starza-Allen 
We report from the fourth session of annual conference of the Progress Educational Trust, titled 'Germline in the Sand: The Ethics and Law of Engineering the Embryo', which discussed the ethics of human embryo genome editing...
11 January 2016 - by Sarah Pritchard 
Sir Mark Walport, the UK's Chief Scientific Adviser, gave the keynote address at the Progress Educational Trust's annual conference, where he highlighted the complexity of assessing emerging science and technology, particularly in relation to genome editing...
21 December 2015 - by Wendy Suffield 
At PET's recent conference, Professor Azim Surani claimed that permission to carry out experiments on embryos beyond the 14-day rule could make a huge difference to research. It may be time to review the ethical reasoning behind this time limit...
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 Dr Jane Currie 
An international summit has agreed conditions under which human genome editing, using techniques like CRISPR, should proceed...
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