The Francis Crick institute will genetically edit the leftover embryos from from IVF clinics
British scientists have been granted permission to genetically modify human embryos by the fertility regulator.
The scientists want to deactivate genes in leftover embryos from IVF clinics to see if it hinders development.
It will only be the second time in the world that such a procedure has been undertaken and the first time it has been directly approved by a regulator. A Chinese team carried out similar experiments last year to widespread outcry.
Currently around 50 per cent of fertilised eggs do not develop properly and experts believe that faulty genetic code could be responsible.
If scientists knew which genes were crucial for healthy cell division, then they could screen out embryos where their DNA was not working properly, potentially preventing miscarriages and aiding fertility.
The initial pilot, which will also have to pass an ethics evaluation, will involve up to 30 embryos and the team would like to work on a further three genes, which could bring the total of to 120.
Critics warn that allowing embryos to be edited opens the door to designer babies and genetically modified humans.
Anne Scanlan of the charity LIFE said: “The HFEA now has the reputation of being the first regulator in the world to approve this uncertain and dangerous technology. It has ignored the warnings of over a hundred scientists worldwide and given permission for a procedure which could have damaging far-reaching implications for human beings.”
But lead scientist Dr Kathy Niakan said that the research could fundamentally change our understanding of human biology and give hope to prospective parents.
“We would really like to understand the genes that are needed for an embryo to develop into a healthy baby,” she told a briefing in central London last month.
“Miscarriage and infertility are extremely common but they are not very well understood. We believe that this research could improve our understanding of the very earliest stages of human life.
“The reason why I think this is so important is that most human embryos fail to reach the blastocyst stage. Over 50 per cent will fail so this window is absolutely critical.
“If we were to understand the genes, it could really help us improve infertility treatment and provide crucial insights into the causes of miscarriage.”
The team at Francis Crick are already in talks with fertility clinics across the country to use their spare embryos.
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