This week comes the news that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority or HFEA have given UK scientists approval to genetically modify donated human embryos. This is the first time that a country has approved such ‘gene-editing’ procedures.
The issue is a controversial one. While many are concerned that such experimentation will lead to an increased risk of designer babies, those involved in the research state the importance of understanding just how DNA creates our bodies. Studying the modification of embryos may lead to increased understanding of IVF, as well as infertility and miscarriage, problems that presently bring pain to many across the UK.
Currently, out of every 100 fertilised eggs, only 13 survive to beyond three months. Yet with approval to explore the role of genes in organising specific functions in cells during early development stages, it is hoped we may learn more about DNA’s role in fertilisation. All gene-editing research will take place during the first seven days after fertilisation, during which time the fertilised egg will develop into a blastocyst, a structure made up of 200-300 cells. By altering genes during this development stage, we will be able to learn more of how DNA guides early development – including when it goes wrong, such as in miscarriage.
Though gene-editing remains an issue fraught with legal, scientific and ethical concerns, scientists leading the study assure that they are aware of the sensitivity of such research and its ethical implications have been included in the fertility regulators guidelines. The issue is particularly pertinent following increased scrutiny over the practice of gene-editing following China’s announcement last year that it had successfully corrected a gene to prevent a blood disorder. The UK guidelines have been met by approval, including by scientific advisor to HFEA Professor Robin Lovell-Badge.
However, such research will undoubtedly allow us to learn more about creating designer or ‘GM’ babies, which many fear due to its eugenic implications. Yet leader of the proposed research, Dr Kathy Niakan wants it made clear that the project is very much focused only on learning what genes are needed to for an embryo to successfully develop. To further quell any worries that naysayers may have regarding such research, the HFEA has ruled that modified embryos must be destroyed after the seven day period. It has also ruled it illegal to implant any modified embryos into women.