UK Will Use CRISPR on Human Embryos — a Step Closer to Human Genome Editing

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"It is human nature and inevitable in my view that we will edit our genomes for enhancements.”
J. Craig Venter

This week, Kathy Niakan, a biologist working at the Francis Crick Institute in London received the green light from the UK’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to use genome editing technique CRISPR/Cas9 on human embryos.

Niakan hopes to answer important questions about how healthy human embryos develop from a single cell to around 250 cells, in the first seven days after fertilization.

By removing certain genes during this early development phase using CRISPR/Cas9, Niakan and her team hope to understand what causes miscarriages and infertility, and in the future, possibly  improve the effectiveness of in-vitro fertilization and provide better treatments for infertility.

The embryos used in the research will come from patients who have a surplus of embryos in their IVF treatment and give consent for these embryos to be used in research. The embryos would not be allowed to survive beyond 14 days and are not allowed to be implanted in a womb to develop further. The team still needs to have their plans reviewed by an ethics board, but if approved, the research could start in the next few months.

In an op-ed for Time magazine, J. Craig Venter writes that the experiments proposed at the Crick Institute are similar to previous gene knockouts in mice and other species. While some results may be of interest, Venter believes, most will be inconclusive,  as the field has seen in the past.

He continues, “The only reason the announcement is headline-provoking is that it seems to be one more step toward editing our genomes to change life outcomes.”

Venter’s stance on the matter of genome editing echoes that of many other scientists in the field: Proceed with caution.

In December 2015, The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine held an International Summit on Human Genome Editing, and after several days of discussion, released a statement of conclusions.

In a nutshell, the group recommended that basic and preclinical research should continue with the appropriate legal and ethical oversight. If human embryos or germline cells are modified during research, they should not be used to establish a pregnancy.

In cases of clinical use, the group underscored a difference between editing somatic cells (cells whose genomes are not passed on to the next generation) versus germline cells (whose genomes are passed on to the next generation).

Somatic cell editing would include editing genes that cause diseases such as sickle-cell anemia. Because these therapies would only affect the individual, the group recommends these cases should be evaluated based on “existing and evolving” gene-therapy regulations.

It’s worth noting that governments across the world have significantly diverse ways of handling gene-therapy regulations.

In the US, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) won’t fund genomic editing research involving human embryos. Research like Kathy Niakan’s is not illegal, as long as it is privately funded. In China, the government doesn’t ban any particular type of research, while countries like Italy and Germany are on the other side of the spectrum, where all human embryo research is banned.

The International Summit on Genome Editing concluded that today it would be “irresponsible to proceed with any clinical use of germline editing” until we have more knowledge of the possible risks and outcomes of doing so. 

In spite of that, the group also concluded that as “scientific knowledge advances and societal views evolve, the clinical use of germline editing should be revisited on a regular basis.”  Similarly, Venter writes of the need for the scientific community to gain better understanding of the “software of life before we begin re-writing this code.”

While the “proceed with caution” message from scientists is loud and clear, the age of programmable biology seems to be getting closer and closer.

Between Venter’s statement that it is inevitable that we will edit our genomes for enhancements and the suggestion that human germline editing should be ‘revisited’ as opposed to banned, it seems even the scientific community is assuming a future which includes human genome editing.

So, where do we go from here?

This brave new future seems equal parts exciting, frightening — and inevitable. At this stage, more research is critical — so when the time comes to rewrite the software of life, we do so with wisdom.

Image Credit: Shutterstock.com

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Sveta McShane

Sveta writes about the intersection of biology and technology (and occasionally other things). She also enjoys long walks on the beach, being underwater and climbing rocks. You can follow her @svm118.
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