Keep Calm and CRISPR On: The UK’s HFEA Approves CRISPRing Human Embryos for Research

Today the British Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) accepted a specific application for genome editing on human embryos for research purposes only. This is not a green light for “designer babies” and should be applauded.

The ruling applies to embryos created initially for IVF but then donated by the parents for research uses. The approval specifically requires that these embryos not be transferred into a woman’s womb for possible implantation, pregnancy, and birth. It also requires that the parents’ informed consent included discussion of genomic editing and that these new activities be approved by the institution’s Research Ethics Committee (the British equivalent to an American IRB).

The goal of the researcher, Dr. Kathy Niakan of the Francis Crick Institute, is to study what genes are essential for the successful development of an embryo from fertilization through the seventh day (the blastocyst stage).   (British law allows research through the fourteenth day.) She will use CRISPR/Cas9 to disrupt genes thought to be important in this process to see which ones really are crucial. The usual laboratory animal, mice, does not use all the same genes and genetic variations used in humans, so mouse work would not be sufficient.   Her hope is to understand better early human embryonic development and, as a result, to understand and treat some causes of infertility.

If you are morally opposed to any destruction of human embryos for research purposes, you should oppose this research. Otherwise, you should support it. This is important research that can only be done with human embryos, it is being done with surplus IVF embryos whose prospective parents agreed to this kind of use, and the researchers are forbidden to to try to produce human gene-edited babies. The proposal has gone through a long and very specific approval process, including a parliamentary vote and lengthy and thoughtful review by the relevant regulatory body – a much better process than anything in place in the United States. Anyone comfortable with any research that destroys human embryos should support this HFEA decision.

Hank Greely

Director, Stanford Center for Law and the Biosciences