Scientists at the Francis Crick Institute in London have been given the go-ahead to genetically modify human embryos for research purposes.
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) granted the team of researchers permission to use a new gene-editing technique known as ‘CRISPR-Cas9’ to understand more about the early stages of human life.
The aim of the research, led by Dr Kathy Niakan, is to understand what factors are needed for embryos to develop properly, and how these findings could be used to improve IVF technologies, or to gain insights into disease.
The researchers hope that this information will enable them to grow and sustain new human stem cells that could be used for both research and therapeutic purposes in the future. As these cells have the ability to develop into any cell type, it is possible that they could be used in cell or tissue transplants in the future, to treat diseases such as cancer or to mend spinal cord injuries.
The stem cells can be found in embryos in their ‘blastocyst’ stage, at three to five days after fertilisation. However the lack of available embryos until this point has meant that research in this area has remained limited. The embryos for this research will come from patients who have donated surplus embryos from their IVF treatment.
It will remain illegal for modified embryos to be used to conceive a child in the UK.
Commenting on the decision from the HFEA, Paul Nurse, Director of the Crick Institute, said: “I am delighted that the HFEA has approved Dr Niakan's application. Dr Niakan's proposed research is important for understanding how a healthy human embryo develops and will enhance our understanding of IVF success rates, by looking at the very earliest stage of human development - one to seven days.”
Further information from the HFEA can be found here.