Researchers apply for licence months after Chinese team become first to announce they have altered DNA. Scientists in Britain have applied for permission to genetically modify human embryos as part of a research project into the earliest stages of human development.
The work marks a controversial first for the UK and comes only months after Chinese researchers became the only team in the world to announce they had altered the DNA of human embryos. Kathy Niakan, a stem cell scientist at the Francis Crick Institute in London, has asked the government’s fertility regulator for a licence to perform so-called genome editing on human embryos. The research could see the first genetically modified embryos in Britain created within months.
Donated by couples with a surplus after IVF treatment, the embryos would be used for basic research only. They cannot legally be studied for more than two weeks or implanted into women to achieve a pregnancy.
Though the modified embryos will never become children, the move will concern some who have called for a global moratorium on the genetic manipulation of embryos, even for research purposes. They fear a public backlash could derail less controversial uses of genome editing, which could lead to radical new treatments for disease.
Niakan wants to use the procedure to find genes at play in the first few days of human fertilization, when an embryo develops a coating of cells that later form the placenta. The basic research could help scientists understand why some women lose their babies before term.
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has yet to review her application, but is expected to grant a licence under existing laws that permit experiments on embryos provided they are destroyed within 14 days. In Britain, research on embryos can only go ahead under a licence from an HFEA panel that deems the experiments to be justified.