UK Scientists Get Green Light to Genetically Edit Human Embryos

By Nathaniel Scharping | February 1, 2016 12:52 pm
human embryo

Sperm injection into a human oocyte, or immature egg cell. (Credit: Eugene Ermolovich (CRMI)/Wikimedia)

Regulators in the United Kingdom on Monday approved a request from scientists to use the emerging CRISPR gene editing tool to perform experiments on human embryos.

Researchers from the Francis Crick Institute in London filed a license application in September 2015 with Britain’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to perform gene editing experiments to better understand the genes that help humans develop in their earliest stages of growth. Their request was granted, which marks the first time scientists have received official permission to alter human embryos.

The Experiment

The researchers plan to study embryos in the first week of growth, when they are comprised of between 64 and 256 cells.

According to Kathy Niakan, a lead researcher at London’s Francis Crick Institute, the experiments aim to better understand the initial stages of human development in order to prevent miscarriages and infertility. The team will focus on roughly 20 genes that guide the process of separating cells soon after fertilization.

“The only way we can understand really human biology at this early stage is by further studying human embryos directly,” Niakan said during a press conference Monday, according to STAT News.

The team will use the CRISPR gene editing tool to selectively “turn off” genes of interest and then study the results of their modifications. Niakan wants to first focus on a gene called OCT4, which is responsible for ensuring that stem cells look like their parents after they divide.

The embryos used for these experiments will be disposed of after a week, the researchers say, and none will be used to start pregnancies. Embryos will come from willing donors at in-vitro fertilization (IVF) clinics, according to the Crick Institute.

“I promise you she has no intention of the embryos ever being put back into a woman for development,” Robin Lovell-Badge, head of the Crick Institute’s Division of Stem Cell Biology and Developmental Genetics, told TIME.

Editing the Human Genome

Just under one year ago, Chinese researchers were the first to genetically alter “non-viable” human embryos in the lab. Scientists at Sun Yat-sen University used CRISPR in an attempt to cure a blood disease called beta thalassemia. Their experiment yielded limited success, and researchers inadvertently caused many off-target effects — they disturbed genes they hadn’t intended to touch. Their research revealed serious obstacles that still stand in the way of using CRISPR for medical purposes in human embryos.

The Chinese researcher team did not receive official approval from the government to conduct their experiment. However, Monday’s decision in the U.K. marks the first time a country has formally allowed human gene editing. Most gene editing research up to this point has been performed on animals. The United States government does not expressly forbid experiments on human DNA, but the National Institutes of Health refuses to fund any human germline research. Researchers wishing to pursue such research in the U.S. must obtain private funding.

Last Year’s Big Approval

Britain last year passed a landmark decision to allow so-called three-person IVF, which is a different procedure involving embryos. This process offers a cure for deadly mitochondrial diseases by combining the nucleus of a diseased egg with the healthy mitochondria of a second egg.

By swapping mitochondrial DNA, three-person IVF represents a less-direct form of modifying the genetic makeup of an embryo. Monday’s decision, on the other hand, opens to door to directly altering the human germline, a technique which offers a powerful solution to many genetically inherited diseases, but could also be used to create so-called “designer babies.”


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, top posts
  • Mustafa Hasani

    Scientists finally get approval for human embryo modification, but meanwhile private companies are doing it for years…and who knows what kind of things they invented/found out so far, but not willing to let the world know.

    • Uncle Al

      One presumes the formally desired product is a superior and aggressive intellect with tremendous depth and breadth of knowledge. When were the Severely and Profoundly Gifted ever desired in anything? Diversity! Every proper child will be stupid and crippled. Zika is Social Justice.

      Brave New World (1931). A happy world is a Gamma world. “Everyone works for every one else. We can’t do this without any one.” Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaisyas, Sudras, Harijans – look how well India works at scale.

      • LamiaLove

        The words you wrote make no sense.

        • Joe Mudaka

          It appears to be a bot.

          • Darwins DoDo


        • Uncle Al

          Central control of the human genome will edit to enforce mediocrity, as it does for politics, social issues, economics, and the military.

          You have no traction. Newton was wrong for values of lightspeed, Planck’s and Boltzmann’s constants, respectively missing relativity, quantum mechanics, and statistical mechanics. Reality does not care if you think (loosely applied) the universe is Newtonian.

      • Darwins DoDo

        Perhaps you can just clean up your prosody a bit and make it much more clear, lest you sound incoherent, as it is, and your words may find a purchase upon the other fellows whom you thrust your diatribe and remarks toward. Just clean it up. Refine your words/thoughts.

  • tikitools1

    North Korea has this technology and is planning on using to create the first 6 foot Korean or is it the first Korean with 6 feet

    • Alleged Comment

      Many big Koreans there OVER 6 feet. BIG fellows…..

    • Americanish

      Japanese officer in WW2 were shorter on average than their men. It was due to the calorie restriction and other hardships done to toughen them up. Since WW2 the Japanese have become taller by 1 ” per generation. This is genetic “plasticity” (look it up), when it comes to height and size. Getting to six foot does not take genetic manipulation but merely a good standard of living.

      My spouse if proof of that. She came from an UMC communist family. ll my children (male or female.) claim they are taller than me and I am a tall male. The spouse is very tall. Her siblings not so much. It had to due to food supply, Mao’s quest to retain power and the Cultural de-evolution.

      You have a good day. Read some more.

  • Socrates

    Dr. Moreau approves this research.

  • King Of All Trolls

    Khan Noonien Singh Approves

  • Jim Balter

    Expect this to arouse stupid people.

  • Alleged Comment

    Getting to be like Noah’s Daze again.

    DNA mingling and tampering, mixed races, GMO, etc.

    That means the end is near……

  • Bruce Williams

    This will be a big topic for years to come. Lets say we do grow a human baby in a “test tube”. It would be a huge leap in curing diseases. It is human nature to improve our situation. So, if we can prevent, then why not. Does it go against the code of ethics we as humans share? I am not one to preach, so I won’t. Since I do not know any big scientific words to describe this, I will just call it progress.

  • Darwins DoDo

    Respond to CRISPR use on embryos in UK. Discover Magazine

    Ethically, from deontological to teleological evaluations, the ‘ought’ we do this is weighed against ‘can’ we do this. From my perspective, the ‘can’ we do this has not even been answered properly. Science and scientists often do abide by ethical principles and codes. They are simple, if not straight forward, but do have ambiguities within them—there is much ideological cushioning for ‘justifications’. Why not see if we can use CRISPR for advanced human application? The implications of its uses are equally good, as they are bad. There will often be the theory that such sciences can be perverted for ill will. Yet, so are every other facet of technologies and the respective applications in human endeavors. It issn’t a simple matter of good or bad, rather which subtle dichotomies or thresholds are we willing to accept upon within the boundaries between good and bad should we rest our laurels upon?

    Is it not interesting that private companies, who exploit most every scientific or technological knowledge, do often do so at the expense of health, safety, or conscience of not just human life, but all life on Earth? Why do we come to the gates and demand scientific endeavors hold sway their efforts and beg the questions of right and wrong, when we so ardently ignore the exploitations of all profiteers on this planet who care diddly squat about negative consequences in their pursuit for profit? I think it perhaps comes form the fact that scientists do often regulate themselves and ask the difficult ethical questions regarding their work, whereas the profiteer/capitalist ignores ethics altogether.

    My thoughts…


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