Genetic Modification given the go-ahead for UK scientists

One step closer to disease-free babies?

Last Monday, genetic modification was accepted by the UK fertility regulator, the first time such a step has been approved by a country and a ground breaking scientific development. Specialists hope that this can have a positive impact on research into the earliest moments of human life thereby improving our medical awareness of fertility and miscarriages, and potentially having an influence on the detection and cure of genetic diseases.

Whilst Chinese scientists have already carried out gene editing in human embryos and successfully corrected a gene that causes a blood disorder, Professor Robin Lovel-Badge (a scientific advisor to the UK’s fertility regulator) has said that “This is the first time it has gone through a properly regulatory system and been approved”; an exciting development for the world of genetic science. The editing of genetic code has the potential for diseases, such as cystic fibrosis which affects 10,000 people in the UK alone, being cured. The technology would first scan the DNA and check for any genetic error. It would then use molecular scissors to either snip through both strands and thus switch off the faulty gene, or repair the code by inserting a healthy copy of the gene in the defective section’s place.

Dr Kathy Niakan proposed the application to begin working on human embryos and is supported by Sir Paul Nurse, who has said: “I am delighted that the HFEA has approved Dr Niakan’s application…Dr Niakan’s proposed research is important for understanding how a healthy human embryo develops and will enhance our understanding of IVF success rates, by looking at the very earliest stage of human development.” Niakan is interested in the effect genetic modification can have on our understanding of miscarriage and infertility in regards to pregnancy. Infertility is estimated to affect one in seven couples and miscarriage to end 5% of pregnancies (something which is gradually increasing). Her research would improve clinical methods regarding both conventional pregnancy approaches, as well as improving IVF treatment. Research will commence at the Francis Crick Institute in London, however will remain experimental for the foreseeable future as it is still illegal for the scientists to implant modified embryos into a woman with the intent for pregnancy. The embryos used will be donated and then destroyed seven days after fertilisation.

Whilst these developments have led to a great amount of positive reports regarding its potential for research into genetic diseases and the positive effects it may have on our understanding of the earliest stages of pregnancy, the news has sparked controversy over the ethical considerations regarding the potential for the development of Genetically Modified or “designer” babies. This is supported by Dr David King, the director of Human Genetics Alert, who has said: “This research will allow the scientists to refine the techniques for creating GM babies… So this is the first step in a well mapped-out process leading to GM babies, and a future of consumer eugenics.” A controversial, however in many cases, widely supported view.

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