A developing human embryo.

The study's use of CRISPR/Cas9 on human embryos is a "justified technical approach," HFEA says.

Duncan Hull/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

U.K. researcher applies for permission to edit embryo genomes

A researcher in London has applied to the United Kingdom’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) for a license to edit the genes of human embryos. Several techniques developed in recent years allow researchers to easily and accurately add, delete, or modify genes in cells. This has stirred debate about using genome editing in ways that would pass the changes on to future generations. The application filed with HFEA would involve only embryos in the lab, however, not any intended to lead to a birth. Many scientists say such lab experiments are crucial to understanding more about early human development, which could lead to new approaches to help infertile couples.

The applicant, Kathy Niakan, a developmental biologist at the Francis Crick Institute in London, investigates the genes that are active at the earliest stages of human development, before it implants in the womb. Work with embryonic stem cells from mice and humans has suggested that some of the key genes active in this preimplantation period are different in humans and in mice. Niakan hopes to use genome editing to tweak some of the key genes thought to be involved and study the effects they have on human development.

She has applied for a license from HFEA, which regulates the use of human embryos in the United Kingdom. The agency confirmed that it had received an application involving genome editing and said it would be evaluated under the agency’s standard rules. The experiments could be allowed under U.K. law.

Earlier this year, several groups of researchers involved in developing genome-editing techniques—including CRISPR/Cas9, zinc finger nucleases, and TALENs—called for widespread discussion of the possible risks and benefits of using the techniques in human cells, and whether new regulations are needed to govern their use. In the United States, Niakan’s project would not be forbidden by any federal laws, but it would not be eligible for funding from the National Institutes of Health. The calls were prompted in part by rumors that groups in China had already used CRISPR/Cas9 on human embryos. One paper describing such research was published in April, but it reported several problems using the technique.

The discussions have begun, with one ethics body, the Hinxton Group, weighing in earlier this month with a consensus statement that said the technique should be allowed to proceed if used for basic research. They said, however, any use of the technique in reproduction is premature.

The German government announced this week that it has earmarked €3.5 million for projects that will explore the ethical, social, and legal implications of using the techniques in human and other cells. (Germany has strict embryo protection laws that forbid most research on human embryos.)

In December, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Medicine, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the U.K. Royal Society are convening an international summit on human gene editing to discuss scientific, medical, ethical, and legal issues raised by the research.