U.K. Scientists To ‘Edit’ Human Embryos – Controversial Gene Editing To Help Understand Fertility Problems Or Create ‘Designer Babies?’

The U.K. has approved scientists to edit human embryos. The application to conduct the highly-controversial procedure of gene editing has been filed, claiming it could help understand female fertility problems, but many are concerned it could set a precedence for genetically-improved “designer babies.”

For the first time, U.K. scientists will be able to genetically modify human embryos. Britain’s fertility regulator has granted approval to a scientist’s application to edit the human genetic code. The legally filed application claims the procedure could offer new insights and possible treatment options for female fertility issues. However, many fear editing human embryos crosses many ethical boundaries. They further claim the process could be used in the near future to build customized human embryos, a procedure commonly referred to as creating “designer babies”. These babies can potentially have carefully selected genes.

Britain’s first experiments with genetically engineered human embryos are expected to begin within weeks, reported The Times. Officially it is an earnest attempt to investigate why hundreds of thousands of pregnancies end in miscarriage. The death of a human fetus in the womb has been investigated on multiple occasions. However, scientists still have a long way to go before fully understanding the unfortunate occurrence. Needless to add, understanding miscarriages can be the first step at avoiding them. Scientists, who applied for the study, hope the research could also improve the odds of a healthy baby being born from artificial insemination procedures such as IVF.

The research will look to knock out the OCT4 gene. OCT4 is thought to be important for pluripotent stem cells, which make up the inner cellular mass of the blastocyst and are capable of becoming any kind of tissue, reported Science.

Incidentally, almost a year ago, China’s scientists skirted the controversy by attempting to modify genes in human embryos, reported The Christian Science Monitor. This time, Britain’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority has approved a very similar and equally controversial experiment that will be led by Dr. Kathy Niakan.

A molecular biologist at the Francis Crick Institute in London, Dr. Niakan will use a new genome-editing procedure called CRISPR–Cas9. The technique, invented just a few years ago, allows an expert to modify genes of a human embryo, in the first seven days of its existence. This is the time when the embryo is blossoming from a single-cell to around 250 cells.

Chinese researchers made the first attempt at modifying the genes in the human embryo, reported Canada. Though the team did not succeed because their laboratory experiment failed, the researchers did manage to raise hopes and offer new possibilities of altering genes. If the research would have continued, the Chinese team could have developed ways to repair genes within human embryos and give the unborn child a future, without the possibility of developing diseases and conditions that are genetically inherited from the child’s parents or previous generations.

By carefully removing the problem genes, scientists can potentially create genetically superior human beings. Such a procedure, discussed in science fiction, is much closer to becoming a reality. The scientific community has openly acknowledged the possibility of creating such fetuses that would develop into “designers babies” devoid of predisposed diseases. Speaking on the issue, David King, of anti-gene manipulation group Human Genetics Alert said the following.

“This is the first step on a path that scientists have carefully mapped out towards the legalization of (genetically modified) babies.”

Incidentally, the world is divided over the research on human embryos. Laws and guidelines vary widely across nations. National Institutes of Health within the United States doesn’t fund such research. However, private funding is allowed.

[Photo by Mi Walker/Getty Images]