British scientists have been given the green light to edit the genes of human embryos for research.
A controversial technique will be used, that some say could eventually create “designer babies.”
Less than a year after Chinese scientists caused an international furore by saying they had genetically modified human embryos, Kathy Niakan, a stem cell scientist from London’s Francis Crick Institute, was granted a licence to carry out similar experiments.
“The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has approved a research application from the Francis Crick Institute to use new ‘gene editing’ techniques on human embryos,” Niakan’s lab said on Monday.
It said the work carried out “will be for research purposes and will look at the first seven days of a fertilised egg’s development, from a single cell to around 250 cells.”
Niakan plans to carry out her experiments using CRISPR-Cas9, a technology that is already the subject of fierce international debate because of fears that it could be used to create babies to order.
CRISPR can enable scientists to find and modify or replace genetic defects, and many of them have described it as “game-changing.”
David King, director of the UK campaign group Human Genetics Alert, has called Niakan’s plans “the first step on a path… towards the legalisation of GM babies.”
NIakan says she has no intention of genetically altering embryos for use in human reproduction, but wants to deepen scientific understanding of how a healthy human embryo develops – something that could, in the long term, help to improve infertility treatments.