On Monday, Britain's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority greenlighted experiments that will attempt to edit the genes of human embryos. The work, which will be the world's first officially approved use of public funding for human-genome editing, is to be led by The Francis Crick Institute's Kathy Niakan.
The news comes less than a year after the first reports of human-gene editing — published by Chinese scientists in the journal Protein and Cell — using the fantastic and at times troubling technology known as CRISPR. By harnessing an ancient defense mechanism built into bacteria, CRISPR allows scientists to target, delete and replace specific genes. It has been used extensively in other organisms, but research in humans has been slow.
The Chinese experiments reported last year were largely unsuccessful. Few of the embryos in the experiment were successfully modified, and even fewer had the changes that scientists intended to make. None of the embryos were gestated, and the authors of the study readily admitted that their error rate was too high for use on viable embryos.
But these scientists and others have continued working at the problem in the hopes of one day eliminating certain human illnesses. In the meantime, policymakers are beginning to chip away at the mountain of ethical quandaries that will certainly result from such a technology.
But Britain now has become the first country to approve the use of public funding for such research. In the United States, labs have to find private funding for any research that creates or destroys human embryos, and some lawmakers seek to ban it altogether. Even in China, where the first "successful" editing occurred, the guidelines are murky.
"China has guidelines, but it is often unclear exactly what they are until you've done it and stepped over an unclear boundary," Robin Lovell-Badge of the Francis Crick Institute told the BBC. "This is the first time it has gone through a properly regulatory system and been approved."
Niakan's approval only allows the study of embryos for 14 days at a time, and her lab will not attempt to implant the modified embryos into women. They hope to study the genetic changes that occur during the earliest stages of life, which could help improve in vitro fertilization techniques and prevent early miscarriages. The research will use donated embryos left over from IVF treatments, and will follow them only through the point in their development when they have about 250 cells.
"Many of the women who make this donation have experienced being unable to have a child without artificial reproductive technology and make their donation altruistically with the hope of allowing others to benefit from improvements in knowledge and treatments," Alastair Kent, director of Genetic Alliance UK, said in a statement. Kent, who is not involved in the newly approved research, oversees 180 charities devoted to supporting people with genetic conditions. "We should acknowledge the contribution that embryo donors make to allow this research to happen," Kent said.
The University of Kent's Darren Griffin called the ruling "a triumph for common sense" in a statement, and Sarah Norcross, director of Progress Educational Trust, lauded the decision as "a victory for level-headed regulation over moral panic."
Niakan doesn't intend to make any edits that would create "designer babies" — embryos tailored to be free of disease or to posses desirable physical traits. But the work will help improve the use of CRISPR on the human genome, possibly making it easier for other researchers to use the technique to this end. Many argue that all research in this area can be considered a slippery slope toward modified, living humans. But there seems to be little question that Niakan's work could make valuable contributions to human health.