The UK Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority has approved a British researcher's application to carry out gene editing on human embryos to study the development of fertilized eggs, Reuters reports.
The researcher, Francis Crick Institute's Kathy Niakan, and her team plan to use the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing approach to turn on and off up to four genes — including Oct4 — in human embryos to better understand their role in development. They'll follow the fertilized eggs' development from a single cell to about 250 cells. This, she says, could help improve infertility treatments.
This research will "enhance our understanding of (in vitro fertilization) success rates, by looking at the very earliest stage of human development," Paul Nurse, the director of the Francis Crick Institute, tells the Associated Press.
Critics, though, say this could lead to the development of designer babies, the AP notes. "This is the first step on a path that scientists have carefully mapped out towards the legalization of (genetically modified) babies," David King from Human Genetics Alert says, according to the AP.
Supporters, meanwhile, say HEFA made the right decision. "The ruling by the HFEA is a triumph for common sense," Darren Griffin, professor of genetics at the University of Kent, tells the Guardian. "While it is certain that the prospect of gene editing in human embryos raised a series of ethical issues and challenges, the problem has been dealt with in a balanced manner. It is clear that the potential benefits of the work proposed far outweigh the foreseen risks."