Earlier this year, a research team in China crossed a scientific line for the first time in history by using gene editing technology called CRISPR-Cas9 to make genetically modified (GM) human embryos. Other researchers around the world including now one in the UK according to Reuters have expressed interest in creating GM human embryos too as a means to learn more about early human development.
In many countries around the world the creation of human embryos for any research purpose is not permitted, but the use of embryos left over from IVF procedures is in some cases allowed. However, in the UK genetic modification of any human embryos (even such left over human embryos) is not currently permitted with the exception of three-person IVF (aka mitochondrial transfer) for the purpose of trying to prevent mitochondrial disease.
Now Dr. Kathy Niakan of the Francis Crick Institute has asked the UK government for permission to make and study the development of GM human embryos.
Although us biologists know a great deal about the development of many organisms including other mammals, surprisingly little is known directly about human embryonic development. That gap is a problem and a roadblock to prevention and treatment of human diseases, particularly developmental disorders. Dr. Niakan has done some impressive, very important research and her studies of gene edited human embryos could in theory prove equally valuable.
Gene editing to produce GM human embryos even solely for laboratory studies is nonetheless very controversial so from a societal perspective there are complexities here beyond the scientific challenges. An international gathering of scientists organized by the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) will meet in Washington, D.C. on December 1-3. On the agenda is a healthy discussion of these issues with the goal being to come up with policy recommendations for how best to navigate the road ahead related to human genetic modification. One possible outcome is a consensus for a moratorium on clinical use of human gene editing technology. I favor that, but with specific allowance for some embryo editing research in the lab.
This NAS meeting was organized in an impressively short period of time made all the more important by the sense that there will be an increasing number of researchers such as Professor Niakan seeking to making gene edited human embryos for research purposes. It also seems probable that others may aim to go much further to relatively quickly try to deploy genetic modification technology in the clinic such as for reproductive purposes, which would be a big mistake.
For more on the request by Dr. Niakan and background, I recommend this excellent Science piece by Gretchen Vogel.