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HFEA grants permission to genetically edit human embryos

1 February 2016
Appeared in BioNews 837

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has granted the first licence to a UK researcher to edit the genomes of human embryos.

Dr Kathy Niakan of the Crick Institute in London has been given permission to study the embryos for 14 days, after which time they must be discarded.

Niakan will have to wait for formal approval from an ethics committee before using the CRISPR/Cas 9 genome-editing technique on human embryos, but the work could begin in a few months, making her team the first outside of China to edit human embryos (see BioNews 799).

Sir Paul Nurse, Director of the Crick Institute, said: 'I am delighted that the HFEA has approved Dr Niakan's application. [Her] 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 – one to seven days.'

Dr Niakan's team 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 would then monitor how the embryos grow until they are one-week old. All of the embryos used for the study are spare frozen IVF embryos, donated by couples undergoing treatment (see BioNews 835).

'We would really like to understand the genes that are needed for an embryo to develop into a healthy baby,' Niakan said in a press briefing in January. 'Miscarriage and infertility are extremely common but they are not very well understood.

'Most human embryos fail to reach the blastocyst stage ... so this window is absolutely critical. If we were to understand the genes, it could really help us improve infertility treatment and provide crucial insights into the causes of miscarriage.'

The news has been applauded by many in the UK scientific community. Professor Darren Griffin of the University of Kent said: 'The ruling by the HFEA is a triumph for common sense. While it is certain that the prospect of gene editing in human embryos raised a series of ethical issues and challenges, the problem has been dealt with in a balanced manner. It is clear that the potential benefits of the work proposed far outweigh the foreseen risks. It is a clear example how the UK leads the world, not only in the science behind research into early human development, but also the social science used to regulate and monitor it.'

Sarah Norcross, Director of the Progress Educational Trust, which publishes BioNews, echoed these sentiments: 'This decision by the HFEA is a victory for level-headed regulation over moral panic. The decision allows basic scientific research into early embryo development and miscarriage to continue, using embryos donated for research by couples who have had fertility treatment in a well-regulated environment.'

But others remain concerned about the direction that this research may take us. Anne Scanlan of the charity LIFE told The Telegraph: 'The HFEA now has the reputation of being the first regulator in the world to approve this uncertain and dangerous technology. It has ignored the warnings of over a hundred scientists worldwide and given permission for a procedure which could have damaging far-reaching implications for human beings.'

In December, an international summit of scientists in Washington, DC, agreed that genome editing of human embryos for research purposes 'should proceed' with caution (see BioNews 831).

Britain gives scientists permission to genetically modify human embryos
Washington Post |  02/16
British researchers get green light to genetically modify human embryos
The Guardian |  02/16
British scientists granted permission to genetically modify human embryos
The Telegraph |  02/16
Licence Committee - minutes
Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority |  14 January 2016
Scientists get 'gene editing' go-ahead
BBC News |  02/16
UK scientists given green light to 'edit' genes in human embryos
Financial Times |  02/16
25 September 2017 - by Paul Waldron 
UK scientists have successfully edited the genome of human embryos to study the role of a gene key to the earliest stages of development...
31 July 2017 - by Charlotte Spicer 
Scientists in the US may have successfully used genome editing in human embryos to correct disease mutations, according to a report by MIT Technology Review...
27 March 2017 - by Emma Laycock 
Radiolab explores the science, the uses and the ethics of CRISPR in this podcast that was two years in the making...
13 March 2017 - by Dr Katie Howe 
Chinese scientists have successfully used genome editing to correct mutations in viable human embryos for the first time...
6 February 2017 - by Rachel Siden 
The American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics has published a statement recommending caution over the clinical application of genome editing...
18 January 2016 - by Julianna Photopoulos 
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) is considering a proposal from scientists to genetically edit human embryos...
11 January 2016 - by Dr Cathy Herbrand 
We report from the second 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', about the newly legalised process of mitochondrial donation...
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...
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...
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