CRISPR embryo OK signals ongoing liberal UK trend on human modification

Kathy Niakan
Dr. Kathy Niakan, Francis Crick Institute Photo

With the approval today of the use of CRISPR in human embryos, the UK continues its recent trend toward a more permissive regulatory policy on human genetic modification. There are both risks and scientific benefits that come along with this trend.

Last year the UK approved an experimental technology with the goal of preventing the transmission of mitochondrial disease. The approach would try to prevent this terrible genetic disease but in the process would also create genetically modified babies. I lobbied the UK Parliament to not approve this technology (variously called 3-person IVF, mitochondrial transfer, and more controversially “3-parent babies”) at this time.

My view was that there wasn’t even close to enough data to support its safety and efficacy at present, but in the future we might know more that tells us it is wise to proceed. I still feel that way today and I’ve heard rumors that the UK scientists even now with the 3-person IVF approval are taking a relatively slow-go approach on its implementation. If correct, I think that’s wise of them. The 3-person IVF technology could do more harm than good. We just don’t know.

With a green light now for CRISPR’ing human embryos at the request of Kathy Niakan, a biologist at Francis Crick Institute, the UK continues its broader trend toward being more open to genetic modification on the human front. The stated goal of the UK CRISPR research on human embryos is not to make designer babies, but rather to advance our understanding of human development, which remains poorly understood:

“I promise you she has no intention of the embryos ever being put back into a woman for development,” Robin Lovell-Badge, group leader at the Crick Institute, told TIME. “That wouldn’t be the point. The point is to understand things about basic human biology.”

Dr. Lovell-Badge is right on this research potentially teaching us very important things about human biology and I can’t imagine that Dr. Niakan has any interest in designer baby research. I’m not worried about that and I’m excited about the research potential here.

It’s frustrating for us biologists that we still know more about the development of other animals (e.g. mice or fruit flies) than that of our own species. CRISPR could change that and I believe it could do it in a big way. So with the appropriate oversight, bioethics training, and transparency, I could support this CRISPR work in the UK. I need time to read up on what exactly they have planned. Also, see my ABCD plan on human germline modification.

However, at the same time we have to be clear that thing aren’t so simple in terms of keeping control of technologies and there are big risks here at a more global level. Collectively we are walking a fine line in this area. All it would take is someone going rogue by taking the same CRISPR’d embryos and implanting them in a surrogate for the field to find itself in a very dangerous situation.

The UK is heading in a more permissive direction on human modification. That may be appropriate to some extent and worth some risk, but how far should it go? What about the US, China, and other countries? We need more talk (meaning dialogue, debate, etc.) to go along with the increasing action (research) in this area.

5 thoughts on “CRISPR embryo OK signals ongoing liberal UK trend on human modification”

  1. @ Jeanne: I agree with you… it seems to be the next big question: When is it acceptable to edit the human genome, and until when. Morula? gastrulation? Is uterus implantation the red line not to be crossed?
    Do we need a worldwide consensus in that? Or country by country? I remember reading an article about the opportunity to work on human embryonic stem cells in Muslim countries because the Islamic ethical positions is more open (Fadel HH, Developments in stem cell research and therapeutic cloning: Islamic ethical positions, a review. Bioethics 2010)… will we have the same about human engineering in the next months/years?

  2. @ Alejandro. The problem is how to define “sickness” and “bad life quality”. Where would you set the limit between acceptable and unacceptable human engineering? between bad and acceptable life quality? Correcting mutations that leads to disease in 100% of cases (HTT gene and Huntington Chorea for example)?, correcting gene of predisposition to severe disease (BRCA2 and breast cancer)?, correcting genes of predisposition to less severe disease (obesity related disorders)? Correcting genes associated with baldness? Correcting genes associated with eyes/hair color? etc…
    And who will be in charge of setting these limits? Scientists? Bio ethics Committee? Politicians? Citizens?

  3. Hi Paul- I’m sure that more will be learned about early human development, but we should remember how early this is. Seven days after fertilization, the embryo still looks like a blastocyst- it “hatches”- dissolving the zona pellucida so that it can implant in the uterus. This is pre-gastrulation, so pre-germ layer development.

    1. @Jeanne,
      This is a great point that I think we’ve discussed before. I need to go read up on what they are proposing to do. Was it disruption of OCT4?

  4. Hei i Will like to say that Im allways With repair of DNA problems that can give sickness or bad life quality. This world is allready unfair enought to the weakest. I want to ask you something.Have stem cells growing in cultures at laboratory the same “vitality, vital energy” as humans? For example ” immortal blood”cells, muscle, epithelial, etc?

    Thank you.

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