UK Regulators Authorize Selective Gene Editing for Research

February 2, 2016 Updated: February 2, 2016

The Francis Crick Institute, based in the U.K., has had a research application for genetically modifying human embryos approved by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority.

Considered a landmark decision, the approval of the Institute’s application will be the first time germ-line editing, a controversial practice, has been formally approved of in the world.

The research will examine how a healthy human embryo develops, and will study it for the first seven days of its life. Knowledge gleaned from the research may aid the care of embryos produced by in vitro fertilization (IVF).

“Dr. Niakan’s proposed research is important for understanding how a healthy human embryo develops and will enhance our understanding of IVF success rates,” Institute director Paul Nurse said in a statement.

The approval is for research only, and it will still be illegal to implant genetically modified embryos into wombs.

If the Institute goes through with the research, it won’t be the first time that germ-line editing has been done. In 2015, Chinese researchers edited an embryo’s genome to correct for a blood disorder, but it’s still considered a momentous event.

“China has guidelines, but it is often unclear exactly what they are until you’ve done it and stepped over an unclear boundary,” Robin Lovell-Badge, a scientific advisor to the U.K.’s fertility regulator, told the BBC. “This is the first time it has gone through a properly regulatory system and been approved.”

When news broke of the germ-line editing done in China, genetic researchers roundly condemned the research for going ahead without first establishing robust ethical guidelines, such as the prohibition of such research for human enhancement purposes, which is associated with eugenics.

The research will still need to go through a round of “ethical approval,” but could begin as early as the next few months.