The topic of genetic manipulation has always been surrounded by stigma, even more so when it comes to handling stem cells from human embryos and the embryos themselves. In fact, there is a strict law pertaining to long-term development of these embryos, as they must be destroyed within 24 days of their naissance, though none have actually lived past the 20 day mark so far.
Developmental biologist Kathy Niakan, a developmental biologist, has been the first scientist in the UK to receive permission from The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) to actually modify genes in human embryos using a cutting edge gene-editing technique called CRISPR/Cas9. Niakan works at the London branch of the Francis Crick Institute and had applied for permission in order to utilize this technique in her research to understand the role of certain genes during early stages of embryo development. The HFEA meeting concluded that in order to use CRISPR/Cas9 to its fully proposed potential and success rate, allowing the use of human embryos justified the technical approach to obtaining research data about embryo gene function.
The ethical debate against embryonic genomes has dragged on for years with many disapproving critics stating that studies like Niakan’s are possibly the first step to creating eugenics, which is the science of creating desirable traits artificially or through selective breeding and the production of “designer babies”. However, a majority of scientists are happy with the decision HFEA has made. For many people, this is the beginning of a new era of understanding as unlocking the makeup of the human embryo can also throw light on how and why stem cells are pluripotent and how they are differentiated during later development.
Gene editing techniques like CRISPR/Cas9 will allow scientists to provide fresh insight into the early embryo’s basic genetic mechanisms which controls cell and are crucial for healthy development.