The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) Licence Committee has approved an application from Dr Kathy Niakan of the Francis Crick Institute to renew her laboratory’s research licence to include gene editing of embryos. The committee added a condition to the licence that no research using gene editing may take place until the research has received research ethics approval.
Genome editing is an important technique that has been rapidly and widely adopted across the biological sciences. The technique enables targeted modifications to be made to the DNA molecules in living cells.
Concerns have been raised about the potential applications of genome editing in humans, including to modify disease traits in somatic cells (gene therapy) and, especially, in reproductive cells (germ line modification). The application approved by the HFEA applies the technique of genome editing in basic research better to understand the early development of embryos. Its aim is the production of knowledge that may, in future, lead to better treatments for infertility. It is about using this new tool of genome editing to carry out research that is permissible under current legislation, subject to strict controls and limitations.
Responding to the HFEA announcement, Hugh Whittall, Director of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, said:
This research will not lead directly to treatment procedures involving modified embryos. However, there are possible scenarios in which modifications made in a research context – for example to investigate a disease-causing genetic mutation – might, if it became legally permissible, be used in a treatment that would result in the birth of a child. A number of significant questions would need to be addressed before any such work is undertaken, including about whether, and under what circumstances, a move into treatment (which would require new legislation to be permissible in the UK) could be desirable.
The Nuffield Council on Bioethics is examining these and other ethical questions raised by genome editing, including applications in biomedicine and reproductive medicine but also in other areas such as plants and animals. The Council has been gathering evidence relevant to the full range of applications and will be considering its conclusions over the next few months.