Use of genome editing techniques on human embryos is a territory that is constantly under debate for there are supporters who believe that the research will enable us to find cure to some of the most deadly diseases in the world and opponents of the technology crying foul that it will be used for designer babies and other unethical purposes.
Earlier this month, a group of leading UK research organisations including the Academy of Medical Science (AMS), the Medical Research Council (MRC) and the Wellcome Trust among others advocated continued use of CRISPR-Cas9, other genome-editing techniques in pre-clinical research including research in human reproductive cells and early embryos, where this is fully justified, scientifically and ethically, and within the confines of the law.
Joining the list is scientists at the Francis Crick Institute (the Crick) in London who have applied to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) to use new “genome editing” techniques on human embryos. The Crick notes that if they acquire the license, the intend to carry out research to understand the genes human embryos need to develop successfully.
The work, led by Dr Kathy Niakan, a group leader at the Crick, will purely be for research purpose, the Crick noted and it will not have a clinical application. However, the knowledge acquired from the research will be very important for understanding how a healthy human embryo develops. This knowledge may improve embryo development after in vitro fertilisation (IVF) and might provide better clinical treatments for infertility.
Scientists at the Crick are proposing to test the function of genes using gene editing and transfection approaches that are currently permitted under the HFE Act 2008. The scientists are also proposing use of new methods based on CRIPSR/Cas9, which allows very specific alterations to be made to the genome.
“By applying more precise and efficient methods in our research we hope to require fewer embryos and be more successful than the other methods currently used”, Dr Niakan said. “Importantly, in line with HFEA regulations, any donated embryos would be used for research purposes only. These embryos would be donated by informed consent and surplus to IVF treatment.”