The proposal was issued by a team of scientists affiliated with the Francis Crick Institute, which is Europe’s largest biomedical lab, worth $1.1 billion. Kathly Niakan, one of the researchers, explained that gene editing will be performed using an innovative technique based on the CRISPR/Cas9 system.
This DNA-altering technology has become extremely popular recently, and has democratized research in this field, since it is much cheaper than other methods, and also very quick and easy to use.
The process consists in using enzyme Cas9, which is guided by a RNA molecule, in order to reach its target DNA. Afterwards, it edits the gene sequence by disrupting certain fragments or adding new ones.
Legislation in the United Kingdom strictly forbids modifying the human genome to combat genetic disease or for other corrective purposes. However, research can be conducted after being granted a license from the HFEA.
The independent body regulates treatment and research involving human embryos, by setting standards and monitoring laboratories and fertility clinics. According to the institute’s spokesperson, the application for altering genes will be reviewed “in due course”.
In April, it was revealed that Chinese researchers had made an attempt at editing genomes from 86 “non-viable” human embryos, which wouldn’t have survived anyway.
The team used the CRISPR/Cas9 technique with a view to change the gene causing β-thalassaemia, a blood disorder which can result in severe anemia, requiring regular blood transfusions. However, the scientists were unsuccessful, and concluded that the system still must be perfected, to cause fewer unexpected mutations.
The study still sparked great controversy upon being published in the online journal “Protein & Cell”, and prompted the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) to reassert its position against such practices. NIH director Francis Collins released a statement on April 29, declaring that there should be no modifications on human embryos, even if they are “structurally defective”.
Nevertheless, representatives of the Francis Crick Institute insist that they will not follow in the footsteps of their Chinese counterparts, by attempting to use the technique “for clinical application”.
What the British experts aim to do is to understand how human embryos develop, in order to enhance fertility treatments and prevent miscarriages. The embryos will result from donations by couples undergoing IVF, and will only be studied in the early stages, before being destroyed.
Other medical organizations in the United Kingdom, such as the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust have also shown support for the Francis Crick scientists. They suggest the CRISPR/Cas9 technique must be developed even further to advance basic research.
It remains to be seen what verdict will be pronounced by the HFEA, once it completes a comprehensive analysis of the proposal. If the answer is favorable, this will be the first time in history that a national regulator has approved of such practices.
In the meantime, the British Royal Sociey, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the US National Academy of Medicine and the US National Academy of Sciences have scheduled a summit for December, where they will debate the issue of human gene engineering.
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