UK Moves Forward With CRISPR Human Embryo Editing Research


Genetics researchers working from the Francis Crick Institute in London have been given approval to begin using CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing techniques on human embryos. Working under lead researcher and biologist Kathy Niakan, the team will focus its research on studying early cellular development of human embryos. Specifically, embryos will be monitored through the first seven days of natural development, growing from a single cell to around 250 cells. During this process, researchers will use CRISPR/Cas9 to remove sections of DNA to monitor how editing an embryo at the single cell level impacts downstream embryonic development.

An important ethical note about the approved research is that scientists will not attempt to edit the DNA of embryos with the goal of eliminating specific hereditary diseases or traits, but are instead focusing on building a more refined understanding of the earliest stages of human development and how genetic coding and gene editing impacts this early development. Researchers have confirmed that they will source embryos from fertility clinics, where single-cell embryos are created in a laboratory environment and then transferred to the mother’s uterus. In many cases, this process results in an excess of healthy single-cell embryos. These embryos will be used by researchers to monitor early development, and will not be allowed to develop beyond seven days.

The team at Francis Crick Institute will not be the first to edit human embryos. In April 2015, a team of Chinese researchers published findings in Nature from a similar experiment, in which single-cell embryos were genetically altered and then allowed to mature for 48 hours. These researchers were interested in seeing if the edits made at the single-cell level remained in subsequent cells as the embryo continued to develop. In this study, researchers only allowed embryos to develop from a single cell to a seven-cell organism, and similarly to the team in London, all embryos were sourced from IVF facilities. While the results of the test were inconclusive, the study itself drew broad international criticism. The ethical issues surrounding the further exploration of gene editing in human embryos has divided the scientific community, with many supporting continued research, but calling for limits on practical use.

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