Designer babies soon? UK gives green signal to alter DNA of embryos

  • Prasun Sonwalkar, Hindustan Times, London
  • Updated: Feb 01, 2016 18:35 IST
(Representative image) Britain’s fertility regulator has given the go-ahead to scientists to “edit” or genetically modify human embryos less than a week old. (Picture courtesy: Shutterstock)

Prospects of “designer babies” through genetically modified human embryos moved a step further after Britain’s fertility regulator gave the go-ahead to scientists to “edit” or alter the DNA of embryos less than a week old as part of research into infertility and miscarriages.

This is the first time such a green signal has been given, after years of debates on ethical issues and nearly 40 years after Britain had the first test tube baby (through in vitro fertilisation) in 1978. This approval potentially opens the door to “designer babies”.

China carried out DNA editing to correct a gene that causes a blood disorder last year, but experts said this is the first time the process has gone through a proper regulatory system and approved.

After the approval by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), experiments with surplus embryos from IVF treatments are scheduled to begin at London’s Francis Crick Institute in the next few months.

However, the regulator has not allowed modified embryos to be implanted into a woman. The embryos will be destroyed within 14 days and can only be used for basic research.

The modification work will be led by Kathy Niakan, who applied to the regulator to carry out the research. She previously said: “We would really like to understand the genes needed for a human embryo to develop successfully into a healthy baby.”

She added, “The reason why it is so important is because miscarriages and infertility are extremely common, but they’re not very well understood.”

The research, she said, could help scientists improve their understanding of the earliest stages of human life. Niakan plans to find the genes at play in the first few days of fertilisation, when an embryo develops a coating of cells that later become the placenta.

Paul Nurse, director of the Francis Crick Institute, said: “I am delighted that the HFEA has approved Dr Niakan’s application. Niakan’s proposed research is important for understanding how a healthy human embryo develops and will enhance our understanding of IVF success rates, by looking at the very earliest stage of human development.”

Sarah Chan, from the University of Edinburgh, said: “The use of genome editing technologies in embryo research touches on some sensitive issues, therefore it is appropriate that this research and its ethical implications have been carefully considered by the HFEA before being given approval to proceed”.

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