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Friday 6 December 2019

Scientists cleared for experiments on embryos

Picture posed
Picture posed

Sarah Knapton in London

British scientists have been granted permission by the fertility regulator to genetically modify human embryos.

The Francis Crick Institute in London could begin the controversial experiments as early as next month after the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) gave the green light.

The scientists want to deactivate genes in embryos left over from IVF clinics to see if doing so 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, causing widespread outcry.

Currently around 50pc 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 whose 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 have claimed that allowing embryos to be 'edited' potentially opens the door to designer babies and genetically modified humans.

But lead scientist Dr Kathy Niakan said the research could fundamentally change our understanding of human biology and give hope to prospective parents.

She told a briefing in London last month: "We would really like to understand the genes that are needed for an embryo to develop into a healthy baby.

"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 50pc will fail so and 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 UK to use their spare embryos.

Paul Nurse, director of the Crick, 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."

Currently, it is not illegal to edit human embryos for research purposes, although it has never been done before because the technology has not been available.

A spokesman for the HFEA said: "Our licence committee has approved an application from Dr Kathy Niakan of the Francis Crick Institute to renew her laboratory's research licence to include gene editing of embryos.

"The committee has added a condition to the licence that no research using gene editing may take place until the research has received research ethics approval." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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