UK scientists gain approval to edit human embryos for the first time

Initial research could lead to future infertility treatments

Our top scientific innovation last year was the continued development of the CRISPR/Cas9 system, a powerful technique that allows scientists to edit the genomes of living organisms. It sounds like sci-fi but it’s here, it’s cheap, and it’s easy to use. A major milestone in the technology’s development has been reached as UK scientists have received approval to use the technology on human embryos.

CRISPR is a very powerful technique, so it’s no surprise that scientists are debating how the technology can be used responsibly. The International Summit on Human Gene Editing has already proposed bans for human embryos that may be used in pregnancy. Later this year they will release a report that gives a consensus on the points brought up at the Summit. CRISPR has already been used on human cells, most notably the removal of HIV from stem cells, but UK scientists have never been able to edit the genes of entire embryos. It’s going to happen though, as the UK’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has approved the Francis Crick Institute for embryonic gene editing. This approval wouldn’t contradict any bans proposed at the Summit because the embryos will be used for research purposes only and would always be destroyed after a week. The proposed bans are only for editing genes in embryos that will go on to be used in pregnancies.

Kathy Niakan, at the Francis Crick Institute in London, is leading the approved team. The first gene they will work on is Oct-4, which is involved in renewing undifferentiated stem cells. Mutated Oct-4 leads to failed embryonic development, so CRISPR will be used to disrupt the gene in order to learn more about developmental events that take place soon after conception. It’s hoped that the research of this critical period will lead to future infertility treatments.

CRISPR can be used in so many applications including killing entire species; stopping host species from carrying parasites; creating gene-edited monkeys as human disease models; and now we’ll be editing human embryos here in the UK. This is a huge milestone and will likely inspire other institutes here and abroad to apply for approval.

Main image © Franis Crick Institute