United Kingdom scientists have been granted permission by the fertility regulator to genetically modify human embryos under strict conditions.
Under the 2008 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, they can only be used for basic research, must be destroyed after two weeks, and cannot be implanted in the wombs of women.
Although scientists will be legally allowed to modify human embryos, they will not be allowed to implant the embryos into women.
Dr Sarah Chan, from the University of Edinburgh, said: “The use of genome editing technologies in embryo research touches on some sensitive issues, therefore it is appropriate that this research and its ethical implications have been carefully considered by the HFEA before being given approval to proceed”.
An embryo only has around 250 cells at the seven-day point of development, and a high proportion are simply absorbed into the placenta.
Researchers at the Francis Crick Institute in London hope that their gene-editing experiments will provide a deeper understanding of the earliest moments of human life and could provide insight into the problems that can cause miscarriage. Understanding which genes dictate this could dramatically improve IVF success rates in future.
The embryos – consisting of just a small number of cells – would be donated by couples undergoing IVF treatment who do not need them.
Crispr-Cas9 is an immensely powerful technique invented three years ago which allows DNA to be “cut and pasted” using molecular “scissors”.
However, the field has always been surrounded by controversy, with critics fearing that gene-editing could be used to create a generation of so-called “designer” babies.
One major concern is that making changes to embryonic DNA could have unknown harmful effects throughout an individual’s body.
Once popular case study is the idea that scientists would take the parent dna, remove the genetic fault and then allow them to still have a genetic child.
“I am delighted that the HFEA has approved Dr Niakan’s application”.
For the first time, the British have received a green light for editing the genes of embryos.
“These mechanisms are crucial in ensuring healthy normal development and implantation, and when they go wrong might result in failure to implant or miscarriage”.
Scientists say such techniques could lead to treatments for inherited diseases like muscular dystrophy and HIV.
“It is a clear example how the United Kingdom leads the world not only in the science behind research into early human development but also the social science used to regulate and monitor it”, he added.