Debate brewing: a group of UK scientists want to modify human embryos

Debate brewing: a group of UK scientists want to modify human embryos

A research group has applied for permission to run a study with controversial "gene editing" techniques on excess IVF embryos.

Just months after news broke that Chinese researchers were altering human embryos’ genetics, a group of researchers have applied to do the same in the UK.

Science Alert reports that the stem cell researchers officially requested permission to perform the study from the UK’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, or HFEA.   This is the first request of this nature in the western scientific world.

The group comes from the Francis Crick Institute in London and proposes to use donated excess embryos from IVF treatments.  They would be using the now famous CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing tool, a technique that allows scientists to “turn” genes “on and off,” to explore the details of very early embryonic development.  Team leader Kathy Niakan said that, “it is essential to study the function of these human genes in the context of the embryo in order to fully understand their roles.”

The team emphasizes that no embryos would be grown to term.

The CRISPR/Cas9 gene has already been banned in the US and is a source of much international controversy.  The fact that a study using it might be approved by a official governing body has sparked international calls for caution and forward thinking.

The Pierce Pioneer quotes Michael Werner, executive director of the Alliance for Regenerative Medicine, as suggesting further thought before further testing.  “We’ve called for a voluntary worldwide moratorium on the genome editing of the human germline,” he said.  “In order to give the scientific community the opportunity to come together for a robust legal and policy discussion regarding the science, safety, and ethics this research represents.”

No matter what happens, the world will be watching.

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