By Hannah Schultz, International Correspondent
As of Feb. 1, the the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) of the United Kingdom has approved gene editing experiments for the Francis Crick Institute in London, led by Dr. Kathy Niakan. The team of scientists hope to use gene editing on embryos within the first week of life in order to better understand the earliest stages of development and the causes of miscarriage.
“I am delighted that the HFEA has approved Dr Niakan’s application,” said Crick Director Paul Nurse in a statement. “Dr. Niakan’s 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.”
The process of gene editing was first discovered among bacteria that were trying to avoid viruses. This natural defense mechanism allows them to identify invading viruses and chop up their DNA. Scientists harnessed this process and have been working on a way to apply it to human genes as a way to correct damaged or mutated DNA.
The team at the Crick Institute will use the genome-editing technique CRISPR–Cas9, which stands for clustered, regularly interspaced, short palindromic repeats. They’re specific patterns of DNA sequences, which can be edited out of genes. Cas9 is a type of modified protein that’s injected into a body to work on the DNA, allowing the scientists to “snip” the specific genes that they want to remove, according to a CNN article. Niakan’s team is interested in early development, and it plans to alter genes that are active in the first few days after fertilization. The researchers will stop the experiments after seven days, after which the embryos will be destroyed. Accordingly, it is illegal for the embryos to be implanted into a woman.
This technique has caused concern among some that it will result in “designer” babies that have been created in a test tube, as the gene editing technology has the potential to allow one to alter genes controlling eye, hair, and even skin color.
“This research will allow the scientists to refine the techniques for creating GM (genetically modified) babies, and many of the government’s scientific advisers have already decided that they are in favor of allowing that,” said Dr. David King, the director of Human Genetics Alert. “So this is the first step in a well mapped-out process leading to GM babies, and a future of consumer eugenics.”
However, others believe that this first step into the world of officially condoned gene editing will open up a whole new field of vitally important medical applications.
“It’s an important first,” said George Daley, a stem-cell biologist at Boston Children’s hospital in Massachusetts. “The HFEA has been a very thoughtful, deliberative body that has provided rational oversight of sensitive research areas, and this establishes a strong precedent for allowing this type of research to go forward.”
At Harvard and MIT, researchers suspect CRISPR may be able to manipulate the so-called “obesity gene.” Dr. Bence Gyorgy, a research fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital, told CNN in August that he and collaborators Casey Maguire and Xandra Breakefield are experimenting with lab mice to develop CRISPR-based approaches to treat Alzheimer’s and to correct a genetic form of deafness. Theoretically, the benefits of CRISPR-Cas9 techniques could extend to slowing the aging process and creating an unlimited supply of donor organs.
For now, most scientists are content with knowing that their practices are being carefully regulated, and they look forward to the advances gene editing will bring to the medical field. So despite some unrest about the rise of the “GM baby,” that brave new world is not quite here.
“The use of genome editing technologies in embryo research touches on some sensitive issues, therefore it is appropriate that this research and its ethical implications have been carefully considered by the HFEA before being given approval to proceed,” said Dr. Sarah Chan from the University of Edinburgh. “We should feel confident that our regulatory system in this area is functioning well to keep science aligned with social interests.”