Will UK Approve Genetic Modification of Human Embryos?

An artistic depiction of a human embryo. (koya979/Shutterstock)

An artistic depiction of a human embryo. (koya979/Shutterstock)

Will UK Approve Genetic Modification of Human Embryos?

Genetic modification. Designer babies. Stem cell research. These are all hot-button topics throughout the world, and the debate is about to get hotter, thanks to a team of British scientists from London’s Francis Crick Institute.

Dr. Kathy Niakan, stem cell scientist at the Institute, has filed a request with the U.K. Human Fertilizaton and Embryology Authority (HFEA) seeking approval to genetically modify human embryos that have been donated after IVF treatments rendered a surplus, reports The Guardian.

Strictly for Research

Dr. Niakan and her team said their main goal is to research the development of the human embryo immediately after fertilization prior to the formation of the placenta.

She said this goal has nothing to do with ushering in a world of designer babies, as critics contend. Rather, the scientists are interested in understanding early miscarriages.

In a statement, Dr. Niakan said, “To provide further fundamental insights into early human development we are proposing to test the function of genes using gene editing and transfection approaches that are currently permitted under the HFE Act 2008… Importantly, in line with HFEA regulations, any donated embryos would be used for research purposes only. These embryos would be donated by informed consent and surplus to IVF treatment.”

A Cost-Effective Approach

A motivating factor behind Dr. Niakan’s request is the cost-effectiveness of CRISPR-Cas9, a relatively new genome-editing procedure.

According to The Guardian, CRISPR-Cas9 not only makes genetic modification more affordable, but also easier.

Genome editing is capable of revolutionizing three areas of medical research, the paper continues. “The first, and by far the largest, is widely supported by scientists. It aims to treat blood disorders, lung diseases, muscle wastage, and so on. The second category, into which Niakan’s work falls, involves genetic changes to human eggs, sperm, and embryos for basic research. The third and most controversial category would see genome editing used in IVF clinics to correct faulty genes that cause devastating diseases.”

Separation of Society and Scientists

2015 is shaping up to be a revolutionary year for scientists who are interested in exploring the possibilities of genetic modification. In April, it was reported that China had become the first in the world to genetically modify human embryos. Not surprisingly, their work is also being hotly debated.

Dr. Niakan acknowledged the various implications of this research, but seemed to take a neutral stance in predicting specific outcomes.

“There are suggestions that the methods could be used to correct genetic defects, to provide disease resistance, or even to introduce novel traits that are not found in humans,” she told The Guardian. “However, it is up to society to decide what is acceptable: science will merely inform what may be possible.”

Do you agree with the ethics of this research? Are you for or against it, or do you have mixed feelings about what it could accomplish? Join the discussion! Comment below, share on Facebook, and find us on Twitter, hashtag #DMTalk.

Pete Fernbaugh


Pete Fernbaugh is an experienced freelance writer, editor, and journalist who has worked primarily in the healthcare field for the last five years. He is also the co-host of Scapegoats & Straw Men, a podcast devoted to discussing in an entertaining and informative way the many logical fallacies that permeate our culture and dialogue. Pete has a passion for the mysterious and unknown, and he believes that nothing should be completely dismissed or completely accepted until the evidence is solid and credible.

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