Scientists in the United Kingdom are looking to delve into a new frontier: the direct editing of human genes in embryos. If the scientists are granted permission, it will mark the first time that a national regulatory body has granted such a request. Given the potentially incendiary nature of the request, however, it’s not a guarantee that permission will be granted.
Genetics research involving human subjects and embryos remains a hot topic issue for many. Some view such research as “playing God” and violating religious tenets. Thus any such research tends to draw large amounts of attention and especially criticism.
The request is coming from Kathy Niakan, who is based at the new Francis Crick Institute, a USD 1.1 billion dollar biomedical research center. Niakan is looking to edit human genes in order to gain fundamental insights into the early stages of human development.
Niakan’s project would involve the use of the CRISPR/Cas9 system, which has proven to be one of the most effective and popular ways to edit genomes. If Niakan is able to go forward with with her proposal, it would mark the first time that the CRISPR system would used in the UK to edit human genes.
A Chinese team, however, has already used the CRISPR system to modify genomes in human embryos. The researchers were attempting to modify the genes causing a blood disorder called β-thalassaemia. Even though the researchers used non-viable embryos, their work stirred up a lot of controversy. China currently has no national laws against gene editing, insteading leaving it up to local ethics boards.
The project being proposed in the United Kingdom will be less ambitious in the sense that researchers will not be looking to develop therapeutic treatments, but instead will be trying to examine the early developmental stage of humans.
In the United Kingdom editing human genes in embryos for therapeutic use is considered illegal, even in spite of the fact that such research could lead to the eradication of genetic diseases. Conducting research, however, is possible if the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) grants permission.
The Francis Crick Institute, where the proposed research would take place, is already emerging as one of the leading centres for genetic research, despite having just opened this year. The Institute is named after famed British scientist Francis Crick, who along with James Watson discovered the structure of the DNA model. In 1962 Crick and Watson were both awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for their work in genetics.
Owing to the intense politicization of human embryonic research many Western countries have avoided or restricted efforts to use embryos in research. The only country so far to modify the genetics of a human embryo has been China, and when researchers in the Asian country did so, they kicked off an international storm of bad publicity.
One of the biggest concerns with modifying genes is that any changes will be inheritable. If researchers accidently create a defect future generations could inherit it. Still, others argue that wise and safe modification could lead to the end of genetic diseases.