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expert reaction to announcement that an application for genome editing of human embryos has been made to the HFEA

An application for a licence to use new genome editing techniques on human embryos has been submitted to the HFEA by scientists working at the Francis Crick Institute in London, and is the first such application of its kind in the UK.

 

Prof. Bruce Whitelaw, Professor of Animal Biotechnology, Roslin Institute, University of Edinburgh, said:

“The HFEA, the UK’s independent regulator overseeing the use of human embryo research, has just received an application for work in the UK using genome editors in human embryos. The goal of this research, to increase our understanding of how the early human embryo develops, is precisely the type of knowledge medicine needs if we are to improve IVF methods. All the proposed work will be done ‘in the lab’ with otherwise-to-be-wasted, surplus IVF embryos. UK regulations will ensure that the embryos will have been selected as not viable for IVF before allocation to this project there is no intention to re-implant these embryos, indeed this is not allowed under UK regulations.

“In the proposed study, the first if its kind in the UK, the activity of specific human genes will be altered using CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing tools. Similar studies have already been done in mice. But mice are not humans, and to have a realistic chance of having more, healthy IVF pregnancy outcomes, researchers must do human embryo research. The recent Hinxton Group consensus statement highlighted that genome editing technology has tremendous value as a tool to address fundamental questions in human biology. The current application to the HEFA illustrates that British science aims to embrace the opportunity to use genome editing technology to enhance medicine.”

 

Dr Sarah Chan, Chancellor’s Fellow, Usher Institute for Population Health Sciences and Informatics, University of Edinburgh, said:

“The news that UK scientists have applied to the HFEA for a license to perform genome editing research using embryos should be cause for confidence, not concern. Genome editing research undeniably has tremendous scientific potential, and UK scientists are poised to make a world-leading contribution to this exciting field. At the same time, we should be reassured to know that this work is being carried out under a robust regulatory scheme that ensures high scientific and ethical standards.

“Although there is widespread agreement that genome editing should not be used for reproductive purposes at this time, this is not a reason to block valuable research. The HFEA’s 25 year history of successful regulation to date shows that it is possible clearly to distinguish research from reproduction, and to prevent undesirable uses of technology while allowing well-regulated science to advance. It is this combination of careful oversight, scientific rigour and public discourse that has brought the UK to the forefront of research in this field today.”

 

Prof. Peter Braude, Emeritus Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, King’s College London, said:

“Having already elucidated important changes in gene activity in very early mouse and human embryos in a previous publication, this is a very sensible and appropriate use of the new powerful gene editing technologies. Removing or adding key genes in a controlled fashion in vitro will allow a better understanding of how early human embryos develop in the laboratory, what makes them succeed or fail after IVF, and what is needed to develop clinically useful stem cells. This is about better understanding nature, not changing embryos for implantation.”

 

Prof. Robin Lovell-Badge, Group Leader, The Francis Crick Institute, said:

“In the context of research on early embryos in culture, genome editing techniques are just another method among many to help us understand how our development begins. The only thing that makes them special is their likely precision and efficiency. This is justification in itself for why they should be used. It is a very different matter to use the techniques for altering the genome of embryos intended for reproduction, which at the present time would be foolish without much more information and careful consideration of the risks and the morality of doing so for each intended application. We are fortunate to have good regulations in the UK that permit research with a licence, but not the implantation of any embryo that has had its genome modified.”

 

All our previous output on this subject can be seen at this weblink: http://www.sciencemediacentre.org/tag/genome-editing/

 

The SMC produced a Factsheet on genome editing which is attached and also available here: http://www.sciencemediacentre.org/genome-editing/  

 

Declared interests

Prof. Bruce Whitelaw: “I have no competing or vested interest in this research.”

Dr Sarah Chan: “I have no competing interests in regard to this matter”

Prof. Robin Lovell-Badge: “I am a member of the Scientific and Clinical Advances Advisory Committee of the HFEA, and have served on the HFEA’s panel looking at the science and safety of methods to avoid mitochondrial disease. I am familiar with the methods of deriving iPS cells and with nuclear transfer, however, I do not carry out research on mitochondria or mitochondrial disease.  I have no financial or other conflicts of interest with respect to this paper, apart from my role in giving scientific advice on the topic of mitochondrial disease to the HFEA and to policy makers.”

Others: None received

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