For the first time, British scientists were on Monday allowed to carry out research on genetically modified human embryos for better understanding of extremely common infertility and miscarriage problems.
The UK’s fertility regulator, Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) gave the go-ahead for the controversial experiment to the Francis Crick Institute in London to provide better understanding of the reasons behind miscarriages.
“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,” Kathy Niakan, lead scientist of the team, told reporters at a briefing here.
“If we were to understand the genes, it could really help us improve infertility treatment and provide crucial insights into the causes of miscarriage,” she explained.
Niakan, who has spent a decade researching human development and had applied for the license to HFEA, wants to understand the first seven days of pregnancy when a fertilised egg moves to a structure called a blastocyst, containing 200-300 cells.
Out of every 100 fertilised eggs, fewer than 50 reach the early blastocyst stage, 25 implant into the womb and only 13 develop beyond three months.
Niakan’s experiment will take place in these early days after fertilisation to understand how a human embryo develops.
It will remain illegal for the team to implant the embryos into a woman.
“I am delighted that the HFEA has approved 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,” said Paul Nurse, director of the institute.
The team at Francis Crick are already in talks with fertility clinics across the UK to use their spare embryos for research and the experiments can start by next month.
“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,” a spokesperson for the HFEA said.
“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. As with all embryos used in research, it is illegal to transfer them to a woman for treatment,” the spokesperson added.
This marks only the second time such an experiment will take place in the world, the first was announced in April last year by scientists in China who carried out gene editing in human embryos to correct a gene that causes a blood disorder.