A team of scientist in the UK have applied for permission to genetically modify human embryos in order to study the genes which affect the earliest stages of human development. This work would be the first of its kind in the UK and follows swiftly on the heels of a controversial announcement by Chinese scientists that they had altered the DNA of human embryos. A stem cell scientist at the Francis Crick Institute in London, Kathy Niakan has applied to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, the UK government’s fertility regulator, to perform “genome editing” on human embryos.

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If granted permission, the researchers will use embryos donated by women who have had IVF treatment to find out which genes are at play in the days following fertilization. The embryos could only be studied for 14 days, after which they would be destroyed. They cannot legally be implanted into women in an attempt to achieve pregnancy. The scientists hope to use their research in order to discover why some women lose their babies to miscarriage.

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“It is not a slippery slope [towards designer babies] because the UK has very tight regulation in this area,” Niakan told the Guardian. HFEA has not yet approved the application, but they are expected to do so under an existing law that provides for research on embryos as long as they are destroyed after 14 days.

If the research goes ahead, it is likely to draw criticism from groups of scientists who called for a voluntary ban on genome editing in human embryos earlier this year. Researchers who are against the practice are concerned that the field of genome editing is advancing too quickly for the ethical implications to be fully understood. UK research funders also called for an urgent debate on the ethics of genetically modifying human embryos earlier this month.

Via The Guardian

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