On the 1st of February, scientists at the London-based Francis Crick Institute were given permission by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) to genetically alter human embryos.
Before you draw out the placards… there are regulations. The gene editing technique (CRISPR-Cas9) can only be used for early development research to better understand the genes that enable human embryos to effectively develop during the first seven days. The embryo has about 250 cells at this point and will be destroyed after the experiment. These embryos are donated by patients through formal consent and are extra embryos obtained during in-vitro fertilization (IVF) treatment.
The essence of this is to look into the possibility of improving infertility treatment and procedures such as IVF. It may also shed some light on the limitations of embryo gene editing for therapeutic reasons. This is the first of such endorsements and should open the doors to more researchers seeking approval on the same.
The snowball effects are already being discussed especially where ethics is concerned. As at the time of publishing this post, the Kathy Niakan team at the Crick Institute was awaiting ethical approval by a local research ethics board. The general fear is that such kind of research might to lead to so called ‘designer babies’ discussed here by a UC Davis stem cell researcher, Paul Knoepfler – where parents might start dictating the characteristics of their future children. ‘” Let’s put some height and above average IQ while in the test tube, won’t we?”.
Regional boundaries of regulatory bodies make it hard to navigate the ethics predicament. In 2015, scientists in China claimed to have edited a blood disorder gene in human embryos. The embryos used were however not viable due to chromosomal defects and caused an uproar, questioning if the study was necessary in the first place.
This is a sensitive area of research that requires more stringent regulation for its tools to be used for a greater good, in this case, better health.