UK Scientists Given Permission To Perform Gene-Editing On Human Embryos

Scientists have been given permission by the UK's fertility regulator to genetically modify human embryos.

A very early stage human embryo seen through a microscope.

The application led by Dr Kathy Niakan and the Francis Crick Institute in London asked Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority permission to carry out the technique known as 'gene-editing' on 7 day old human embryos.

Paul Nurse, director of the Crick, said: "I am delighted that the HFEA has approved Dr Niakan's application. 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 embryos during this extremely early stage scientists are hoping to get a better understanding of why miscarriages happen and what causes them in the first place.

Despite being incredibly common, Niakan argues that the subject of miscarriages are little understood.

What the team propose is to use a powerful new technique known as 'gene-editing' to disable a number of genes within the embryos. They'll then observe how the embryos develop over seven days before destroying them.

Niakan believes that many of the answers to questions surrounding miscarriages can be answered during this crucial seven day period during which the fertilised egg develops into a 300-cell structure called a blastocyst.

Gene-editing itself is already considered a controversial subject due to the powerful ramifications it can have, by then using this technique on human embryos scientists have had to go through a number of strict measures to assess how justifiable the procedure is.

Now the HFEA have given permission for the technique the team will now need to wait approval from an ethics board after which the first experiments could begin in just a matter of months.

What is gene-editing?

This controversial and powerful technique has the ability to quite literally change a person's DNA. By creating a pair of biological 'scissors' using bacteria scientists are now able to cut away or replace individual strands of DNA.

What could gene-editing do?

The biggest selling-point for gene-editing is its ability to 'reprogram' cells to perform new tasks. One of the most attractive propositions is using the technique to enhance white blood cells so they can target cancer, making the human body far more efficient at fighting off the malignant cells.

In the case of human embryos there's even the potential to help parents who have known genetic conditions have children through IVF while simultaneously eradicating their genetic disease.

Once popular case study is the idea that scientists would take the parent dna, remove the genetic fault and then allow them to still have a genetic child.

The procedure isn't without its controversy though and the UK will now become the second-only place in the world where gene-editing of human embryos has been approved.