Britain approves controversial gene-editing technique after Chinese scientists condemned for modifying human embryos

Aim is to find out more about early human development, but critics say the work is dangerous step towards ‘designer babies’

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 February, 2016, 7:50pm
UPDATED : Monday, 01 February, 2016, 7:50pm

Britain’s fertility regulator has approved a scientist’s application to edit the human genetic code using a new technique that some fear crosses too many ethical boundaries.

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.

Niakan, of the Francis Crick Institute, plans to use gene editing to analyse the first week of an embryo’s growth.

Paul Nurse, director of the Francis Crick Institute, said Niakan’s research would “enhance our understanding of (in vitro fertilisation) success rates, by looking at the very earliest stage of human development.”

Last year, Chinese researchers made the first attempt at modifying genes in human embryos. Their laboratory experiment didn’t work but raised the prospect of altering genes to repair the genes of future generations.

Huang Junjiu, a gene-function researcher at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, and colleagues describe how they used the CRISPR-Cas9 technique to modify the genomes of embryos obtained from a fertility clinic.

READ MORE: Chinese scientists genetically modify human embryos for the first time

Scientists say such techniques could lead to treatments for inherited conditions like muscular dystrophy and HIV.

Around the world, laws and guidelines vary widely about what kind of research on embryos that will change the genes of future generations, is allowed. In the U.S., the National Institutes of Health won’t fund this kind of research but private funding is allowed.

Critics warn that tweaking the genetic code this way could eventually lead to a slippery slope.

“This is the first step on a path that scientists have carefully mapped out towards the legalisation of (genetically modified) babies,” said David King, of anti-gene manipulation group Human Genetics Alert, last month when the British fertility regulator held its meeting to decide on granting the gene editing license.