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).