A British Scientist Just Got Approval to Begin Gene-Editing Embryos

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Photo: BSIP

A lot of people have a lot of conflicted feelings about the ethics of gene-editing, and the news out of the U.K. this morning is sure to amplify them. A British scientist just got approval from the governing body over fertility research in that country to begin experiments on embryos using CRISPR, the controversial gene-editing therapy technique.

That decision, which is the world’s first approval of public funding for this type of experimentation, will allow scientist Dr. Kathy Niakan of London’s Francis Crick Institute to start work she argues may help advance infertility treatments, such as reducing miscarriage rates and improving in vitro fertilization methods. Niakin and the rest of her team want to understand more about what goes wrong in the earliest stages of embryonic development, and through their study, they believe they may be able to learn more about those genetic changes that cause those errors in development; through the use of the CRISPR technology, they say they may be able to snip away the problematic parts of DNA that cause them.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority — the Department of Health group that approved Niakan’s request — also ruled that Niakan and her team cannot implant the genetically modified embryos into women; also, the scientists will only be able to use the donated embryos for no more than 14 days. In other words: This specific set of experiments is not itself about “designer babies.”

Still, the ethics of such experimentation are tricky to wade through, to put it mildly. This news, for instance, comes nearly one year after Chinese scientists reported that they had experimented with gene-editing embryos. Those trials failed — either with the death of the embryo or the failure to alter its genes — and were met with sharp criticism from some leading members of the global scientific community. “Their study should give pause to any practitioner who thinks the technology is ready for testing to eradicate disease genes during I.V.F.,” Dr. George Q. Daley, a Harvard researcher who studies stem cells, told the New York Times last April. “This is an unsafe procedure and should not be practiced at this time, and perhaps never.”

Similar experiments are not likely to begin in the U.S. any time soon, as the Chinese scientists’ experiments prompted the National Institutes of Health last spring to confirm its ban on research involving genetically modifying embryos. Even so, the rapid advances in gene-editing are going to be fascinating to watch.