A team of scientists at the Francis Crick Institute in London has been granted permission by the UK Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA) to use CRISPR-Cas9 technology for early embryo developmental research. The application was deemed successful yesterday (February 1) and was the world’s first approval of such research by a national regulatory authority.
The approved application was awarded to developmental biologist, Dr Kathy Niakan, at the Francis Crick Institute. Niakan and her research team will be looking at early stages of embryo development in humans. As per regulations by HFEA, her team will use donated embryos from patients who have given prior consent for surplus embryos to be used after their in vitro fertilization treatments.
The researchers are planning to alter genes that are active in the first few days after fertilization. The planned genetic modifications could help researchers understand and develop treatments for infertility, but the embryos themselves will not be used as the basis of any treatment. The researchers are required to stop their experiments after seven days, whereafter the embryos will be destroyed as per requirements by the HFEA.
Although it remains illegal to alter genomes of embryos used to conceive children in the UK, the researchers say that this decision to allow embryo editing could help raise the debate of whether or not gene editing in embryos could be used in therapeutic treatments in clinics. We will have to wait and see what Dr Niakan and her team discover and whether or not gene editing in human embryos will become more accepted around the world by other regulating authorities.
To learn more about CRISPR-cas9 and how it is used to edit DNA, watch this four-minute video from MIT: