The British science community is awaiting news from the Government’s fertility regulator on whether permission will be granted for researchers to genetically modify human embryos.
Dr. Kaithy Niakan at the Francis Crick Institute, London’s new £700 million research centre, requested the licence last autumn, and the regulator met on Thursday to reach a verdict.
The research group intend to use a powerful new procedure, called Crisp-Cas9, to edit the genetic code of young embryos in order to shed light on the causes of repeated miscarriages. By disabling certain genes in the code, the team hope to monitor the stunted development of three types of cell groups: those that lead to the formation of placenta, the foetus and the eggs sac that nurtures the foetus. It is ‘genetic glitches’ in any of these that can result in a miscarriage. The research will require between 20 –30 embryos, sourced, with consent, from couples who have a surplus following IVF treatment.
Niakan told reporters in London that ‘the research could lead to improvements in fertility treatment and to a better understanding of the first stages of life,’ a field currently not well understood. The licence faces opposition from groups such as Comment on Reproductive Ethics but is widely seen as the first steps to the next breakthrough in fertility research.
The request comes after a team at Harvard last year used Crispr-Cas9 to modify pig embryos in research could lead to safe pig organ transplants to humans. If the regulator grants the licence, Niakan and her team will become the second group in the world to modify the genes of a human embryo.