UK researcher gets go-ahead to modify embryos using CRISPR

1 Feb 2016

The UK regulator that decides on the ethical nature of scientific experiments with regard to fertilisation has given the go-ahead for a scientist to create genetically-modified human embryos using the latest advancements in genome editing known as CRISPR.

For those unfamiliar with CRISPR, the technique was developed as little as three years ago to allow scientists to cut and edit the sequence of DNA in what is seen as potentially providing a future where genetic disorders could be eliminated before a child is born.

Understandably, the method has attracted huge controversy over accusations of being close to the ideals of eugenics, while scientists in China caused outrage last year after confirming they had already edited the genomes of human embryos using the method.

Despite claims that the CRISPR/Cas-9 method, as it’s officially known, is now outdated compared with other methods, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) regulator has now approved UK scientists to use it to create artificial embryos using stem cells.

According to The Guardian, the go-ahead was given following an application to the HFEA by stem cell scientist Dr Kathy Niakan, who wants to study the genes during the early developmental process of an embryo following fertilisation.

More specifically, Dr Niakan wants to understand the genetic reasons that cause a woman to lose her child prior to term, while also potentially offering solutions to infertility in women.

Some stipulations

Given the sensitivity of the subject and the ethical fears over gene-editing technology, the HFEA has issued a few rules that Dr Niakan must meet before she can begin her work, such as that she may only study genetically-modified embryos for a period of 14 days and they must, in no circumstances, be placed into women for birth.

The embryos will be sourced from donations from those undergoing IVF treatment who have given their informed consent to the donation of surplus embryos.

Understandably, there has already been a number of reactions to the news, but, seemingly, from her peers’ point of views, it’s nothing but good news for genetics research as a whole.

The Francis Crick Institute, which is where Dr Niakan will conduct her research, has described it as an “exciting prospect”.

“I am delighted for my colleague Kathy Niakan that the HFEA has approved her licence application,” said its group leader, Prof Robin Lovell-Badge.

“This will allow her to not only continue her research on how the early human embryo develops, but allow her to address the role of specific genes through the use of CRISPR/Cas-9 genome-editing methods. The approval of her licence gives the exciting prospect that we will at last begin to understand how the different cell types are specified at these pre-implantation stages in the human embryo.”

DNA helix statue image via Sanguangwong/Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic