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Genetic Modification of Human Embryos- a Slippery Slope?

Back in September 2015, it was announced that British Scientists from the Francis Crick Institute had sought permission from the government’s fertility regulator (HFEA), to genetically modify human embryos. The application is part of a research project into the earliest stages of human development.

It is illegal in UK law to use gene editing of embryos in IVF treatment but it is permissible under a licence, for research purposes only.

HFEA have now met to decide whether the licence will be granted. If they agree to the proposed research, scientists could be genetically modifying human embryos by March 2016.

The Crick, one of the UK’s top scientific institutions, wish to alter the DNA of left-over embryos from IVF clinics to deactivate genes in the embryos to see if it hinders development. It is hoped that the research will identify which genes are required for healthy cell division, allowing embryos whose DNA is not working properly, to be screened out, potentially preventing miscarriages and aiding fertility.

The research is aimed at identifying the reasons why some women suffer multiple miscarriages. Professor Robin Lovell-Badge, a senior scientist at the Crick has emphasised that

The ultimate clinical benefits could be improved methods of IVF and better implantation rates in women who have big problems maintaining a pregnancy because there is something wrong with the interaction between the placenta and the uterus”.

The embryos would only be studied for a maximum period of two weeks (as required by UK law) and would not be implanted in women to allow a pregnancy to develop.

Critics warn that it is a slippery slope from allowing embryos to be edited, to opening the doors for the so called “designer baby” and genetically modified humans.

In a statement issued by the Crick, it emphasised that:

The work carried out at the Crick will be for research purposes and will not have a clinical application. However, the knowledge acquired from the research will be very important for understanding how a healthy human embryo develops. This knowledge may improve embryo development after in vitro fertilisation (IVF) and might provide better clinical treatments for infertility.”

Kathy Niakan, one of the stem cell scientists from The Francis Crick Institute has emphasised that the heavy regulation in this area will avoid this so called slippery slope. She emphasises that

it is up to society to decide what is acceptable: science will merely inform what may be possible.”

An HFEA spokesperson said:

Genome editing of embryos for use in treatment is illegal. It has been permissible in research since 2009, as long as the research project meets the criteria in the legislation and it is done under an HFEA licence.”

It remains to be seen whether HFEA grant the licence to allow The Crick to undertake this research which could allow great strides to be made in aiding fertility. The future application of genetically modifying embryos in a clinical setting remains a highly controversial area and one that continues to divide opinion.

If you or anyone you know has concerns about fertility treatment, contact our specialist clinical negligence team on 0800 316 8892.


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