UK Scientists Get the Greenlight to Genetically Modify Human Embryos

Monday, 01 February 2016 - 12:43PM
Genetic Engineering
Monday, 01 February 2016 - 12:43PM
UK Scientists Get the Greenlight to Genetically Modify Human Embryos
For the first time in history, a governmental body has officially sanctioned the use of genetic engineering techniques on human embryos. The UK's fertility regulator has given British scientists the go-ahead to conduct genetic modification research at the Francis Crick Institute in London in order to better understand the genetic factors involved in creating a healthy baby.

Last year, Chinese scientists made history when they announced the first successful genetic modification of human embryos, causing a storm of controversy that led to a call for a gene editing moratorium from the White House. So this wouldn't be the first time this type of experimentation with the human germline has taken place, but it will be the first time that it has been approved by a regulatory body.
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"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, a scientific advisor to the UK's fertility regulator HFEA (Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority), told BBC. "This is the first time it has gone through a properly [sic] regulatory system and been approved."
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The researchers plan to use these experiments to study the causes of miscarriages, early defects, and fertility issues. When eggs are fertilized, only 50% reach the blastocyst stage (the stage before embryos in which cells begin to differentiate), 25% implant into the womb and 13% ultimately survive past three months, and the causes of this high failure rate are mostly unknown. 

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"We would really like to understand the genes needed for a human embryo to develop successfully into a healthy baby," said Dr. Kathy Niakan, who will lead the research. "The reason why it is so important is because miscarriages and infertility are extremely common, but they're not very well understood."
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It will still be illegal to actually implant these embryos into a woman, so there's no chance of these changes to the germline being inherited, or for a burgeoning culture of "designer babies." For now, at least, as according to Dr David King, the director of Human Genetics Alert, it's a stepping stone towards both of those developments.

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"This research will allow the scientists to refine the techniques for creating GM babies, and many of the government's scientific advisers have already decided that they are in favour of allowing that," he said. "So this is the first step in a well mapped-out process leading to GM babies, and a future of consumer eugenics."
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There are obviously enormous social and ethical implications to the notion of "consumer eugenics," at least if the modifications are someday superficial. It's difficult to argue with the eradication of debilitating, fatal, and painful genetic diseases like Tay-Sachs or Huntingtons, but it's a slippery slope to cosmetic changes that lead to some kind of "master race" that furthers the divide between the rich and the poor. However, the fact that this research is under some regulation may make it easier to ensure that the research is used only for strictly medical purposes.

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"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," said Dr. Sarah Chan, from the University of Edinburgh. "We should feel confident that our regulatory system in this area is functioning well to keep science aligned with social interests."
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