Scientists in London have asked for permission to edit the genomes of human embryos. If such permission is granted, it will mark the world’s first approval for such research by a national regulator. This could prove to be an important turning point in the debate about genetic modification.
Genetic modification of human embryos is officially illegal in the UK. However, research into the subject can be made possible with a license from the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA).
Reports abound that Chinese research teams are already delving in to the secrets of our genetic make up using ‘cut and paste’ technology to successfully edit the DNA make-up of living organisms. The team used nonviable embryos to try and prevent a rare genetic blood disorder. They were somewhat successful in doing so.
Although the Chinese government does have some stipulations about the gene editing of human embryos, “these are not quite laws, and there would only have been local ethics committee approval” according to Robin Lovell-Badge, a developmental biologist at the Francis Crick Institute.
Kathy Niakan of the Francis Crick Institute in London has proposed using technology based on the CRISPR/Cas9 system (a method of editing genomes) on human embryos in order to provide “fundamental insights into early human development”.
The difference between Niakan and the Chinese team is that Niakan intends to research the human embryo’s development, rather than create any possible treatment for disease.
“Kathy has no intention of making changes to the genome for clinical application,” said Lovell-Badge.
Niakan’s application comes at a time when the world is coming to grips with the new scientific possibilities of intervention in the early stages of development. Scientists and ethics experts have been convening in conferences around the globe in order to hash out what regulation, if any, should be put in place for this field of research.
In response, five major UK research institutes issued a joint statement saying:
“Research using genome editing tools holds the potential to significantly progress our understanding of many key processes in biology, health and disease and for this reason we believe that responsibly conducted research of this type, which is scientifically and ethically rigorous and in line with current legal and regulatory frameworks, should be allowed to proceed.”
How the United Kingdom responds to Niakan’s application will have global ramifications. Britain has a long-standing reputation of careful yet progressive study into controversial topics. Doubtless, scientists and policy makers around the world will be watching to see what the UK decides.
“Because of its history of successful regulation, the UK could serve as a model for other countries,” said Sarah Chan, a bioethics researcher at the University of Edinburgh.
The United State’s National Institutes of Health continues to ban any funding being used to genetically alter human embryos- viable or not.