British lawmakers have handed down a historical and controversial decision to allow scientists to move forward with new “gene editing” techniques on human embryos. The Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has given the go-ahead on genetically modified human embryos for the first time in the nation’s history. Scientists will use these techniques to study the earliest stages of development – the first week after fertilization, to be specific – in order to better understand the genes human embryos need to develop successfully. The research could improve success rates for in vitro fertilization, as well as possible lead to developments in infertility treatment.

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Scientists at Francis Crick Institute, led by by Dr Kathy Niakan, will use the innovative gene editing techniques to study the genes human embryos need to develop successfully. The team will focus on the first seven days of a fertilized egg’s development, during which an embryo grows from a single cell to around 250 cells. By genetically modifying DNA of embryos in early development, the scientists hope to improve their development after IVF and possibly use the same information to develop more effective clinical treatments for infertility.

Related: UK scientists have applied for permission to genetically modify human embryos

This approval marks the first time that UK scientists have been allowed to conduct gene editing on human embryos, but Chinese scientists became the first in the world to do it last year, when a team modified genes responsible for a blood disorder.

The research will move forward within the next few months if ethical approval is obtained. The HFEA decision comes with the caveats that embryos can only be used for research purposes and not in treatment, in an effort to appease those with ethical concerns about the techniques. In particular, some caution that gene editing of embryos will eventually be used to create “designer babies,” a scenario in which would-be parents could have input over other genetic factors, like eye and hair color. For now, the research team looks forward to clearing the last phase of approvals so they can begin their work unlocking even more mysteries about the beginnings of human life.


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